On the one hand, Arena Stage’s “Watch on the Rhine” is simply a good show— a story of family, romance, and political intrigue conveyed through fine acting and elegant stage design, injected with just the right amount of humor.
But in 2017, there’s no mistaking its eerie timelines, too.
Written by Lillian Hellman in 1941 and produced as part of Arena Stage’s Lillian Hellman Festival, the play centers around wealthy DC-area widow Fanny Farrelly (played by Academy Award-nominated Marsha Mason) and her daughter Sara, who has returned home after 20 years living in Europe with a surly German husband, Kurt, and three oddball children in tow. It is spring 1940, and the harsh realities of the outside world mar the otherwise joyous reunion. An unscrupulous European diplomat, who has taken temporary residence at the home with his young American wife– a credit to Fanny’s hospitality and means, grows suspicious of Kurt’s past. “I just don’t like polite political conversations anymore,” says Sara, rebuffing his prying questions about their anti-Fascist beliefs.
It’s a line that stands out, perhaps because it feels that right now there is no such thing; or because, as Washingtonians, we know that less than three miles from the theater stand the very institutions that would have shaped these characters’ history– the State Department, the White House… When Sara’s brother pronounces to I-won’t-say-whom, “You’re a political refugee, we don’t turn back people like you,” the entire audience broke into unfettered applause. The play undoubtedly hits close to home.
Watch on the Rhine at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater runs February 3-March 5, 2017.
*Photo credit C. Stanley Photography