Sheltered — Photo: Teresa Castracane
Somewhere in America, conscientious friends and neighbors are debating the rights of asylum-seeking children who have been separated from their parents and now pass their days and nights alone among hundreds inside a detention center. Or, the topic stirring passions around the dinner table might be the startling rise in hate crimes, or whether to remove this president, or how to respond to aggression from foreign nations, or a planet on fire. Context varies, but the question often comes back to, how can good people just stand by and do nothing?
Alix Sobler sets the first act of her sharp-witted drama Sheltered (★★★½☆) at a private dinner party in Providence, in 1939, where the characters and context carry their own complicated meanings, and yet the big questions raised are resoundingly recognizable. As Hitler’s Nazi party tightens its grip around Germany and Austria, and Jews are being systematically pushed out of public and private life, two comfortably middle-class Jewish couples in Rhode Island, one more well-off than the other, debate over signs of impending world war. Their greatest fear is for what the future holds for those Jews who don’t or can’t escape Nazi Germany before it’s too late. Men, women, and children already are being taken into custody, vanishing from their homes. What might be next, and how can good people stand by and do nothing?
Finely attuned to the script’s pendulum swings between dinner party levity and wartime gravitas, Adam Immerwahr’s production at Theater J captures the rhythms of a conversation most of us have taken part in, on one heated topic or another. And, often, on the other side of the argument, one might find a fellow guest like Marty Blum (Alexander Strain), a guy who can hear how a situation has deteriorated from bad to horrible, and not much care if it gets worse, as long as the storm doesn’t darken his door. The accountant son of Jewish immigrants, who dropped the family name Blumenthal for Blum, Marty’s hustled his way up the Providence social ladder and he’s inclined to wave off the Nazis as a storm that soon will blow over. Strain’s performance turns the cocktail-swilling husband and father, alternately jovial or brusque, into an intriguing study of a man who practices the wait-and-see politics of the willfully oblivious.
As Marty’s more compassionate wife Roberta, Kimberly Gilbert offers another study in intriguing characterization, a woman aggrieved but not willing to bring up the matter of why. The play adds a meaty layer of tension to the evening’s soirée by conveying an unspoken issue of estrangement between the Blums and their hosts, Dr. Leonard and Evelyn Kirsch (David Schlumpf and Erin Weaver). Apparently, it’s been ages since the Blums and Kirschs dined as a foursome, and Roberta feels slighted. Thus Gilbert’s textbook performance as the wounded Roberta, who wants her friend Evelyn to know that she feels aggrieved but has no intention of bringing it up, unless she is asked — which, eventually, Evvy does.
Sheltered — Photo: Teresa Castracane
The manipulation is droll and petty and one-hundred-percent credible, and, in the larger scheme of the play, it also presents a lighthearted parallel to how Evvy will call on her own tools for manipulation. She and Len have ulterior motives for prompting this urgent discussion of whether the U.S. will take in refugee Jewish children from Europe. They’ve decided that they want to be part of the effort to shelter said children from whatever Hitler has planned in Europe, and they’ll need more than their money and connections to ensure the dangerous project is a success. Most distressingly, they’ll need at some point to choose which children they cannot save. Inside a hotel room in Vienna, likely under surveillance by the Gestapo, Evvy and Len have to sort through photos and files of children, deciding whom to take and whom to leave. “A line has to be drawn,” Evvy declares.
Despite the raised stakes, and Weaver’s well-modulated performance, the quiet intensity that envelops the first-act at the Kirschs feels depleted in the Vienna-set second act. Evvy engages in a contest of wills and negotiation with a mother, Frau Mueller (McLean Fletcher), whose son might be chosen by the Kirschs for shelter in America. But without the edge of hurt feelings and personal history volleyed between Evvy and Roberta, the exchange between Evvy and Frau Mueller doesn’t cut as sharply to the quick. Although, in the end, still lingering powerfully over their choices and compromises is the question that they started with, the one that faces all good people when times turn terrible: to act, or to just wait and see if things get better on their own.
Sheltered runs through Feb. 2, at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets are $39 to $69. Call 202-777-3210, or visit www.theaterj.org.