“It’s always hard to separate Lillian Hellman from her plays,” says Jackie Maxwell. “She was an overtly controversial figure. She was a Communist — it’s what she was called, although I’m not sure if it’s quite the same meaning today it had then — and she went to Europe. A couple of different figures in this play are definitely based on people that she met in Europe leading up to World War II.”
“This play” is Watch on the Rhine, one of Hellman’s more controversial works. It first ran on Broadway in 1941 to critical and popular acclaim, and was subsequently followed by a 1943 film version starring Bette Davis, boasting a screenplay adaptation by the great Dashiell Hammett. The show is currently at Arena Stage, where it’s starring Marsha Mason (The Goodbye Girl). The Belfast-born Maxwell, who makes her home in Canada, where she ran the esteemed Shaw Festival for 14 years, was hand-picked by Arena’s Molly Smith to helm the production, which blends parlor room comedy with espionage, intrigue, and anti-fascist elements — as they related to America’s ambivalence in joining the war effort.
“What we have here is a play from a woman who had a very deep sense of politic, who really wanted to talk to America and go, ‘Why are we being blind here? We have to open our eyes,'” says Maxwell. “The play was a huge success. It hit a nerve in a very populist way.”
Maxwell finds it “fascinating that Hellman was often castigated often for being shrill, abrasive, and aggressive. I think [it’s] a woman’s fate to be castigated in that way when showing strong views. I sort of feel to myself that had Hellman been a man, that may not have been the case.” That sexist attitude hasn’t changed all that much. “You need only look at the last year,” she says, making a not-so-subtle reference to the treatment of Hillary Clinton during the election.
Watch on the Rhine has relevance to what’s occurring in modern times, but Maxwell is quick to point out that the effect is subtle.
“Instead of going, ‘I’m going to do a contemporary polemic against Trump,'” she says, “what you can do with a play like Hellman’s is contextualize it. It gives you a kind of distance whereby you can rid yourself of the current emotional rhetoric and actually see things in action that start to put the contemporary times in perspective and clarify them.
“I think hopefully what I’m here to do is — rather than come down from Canada, push my little stick in the hornet’s nest and then bugger off — lay out a piece of theater that at least gives some clarification, provocation and context to what’s happening [in America].”
To March 5 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $55 to $110. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.
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