Reviewed by Judy Richter
Each of the four characters could be the title character in David Wiltse's "The Good German," in its West Coast premiere at Marin Theatre Company. Set in a German university city during the Nazi era, the action takes place in the comfortable living room (set by Melpomene Katakalos, lighting by Michael Palumbo) of a chemistry professor at the university and his wife, a nurse. As it opens, the wife, Gretel (Anne Darragh), has returned from work with Braun (Brian Herndon), a Jewish publisher who has lost his home, his business, his wife and his child in a fire, one apparently deliberately set by the Nazis. Because he has nowhere to go, she wants to shelter him at her home.
Her husband, Karl (Warren David Keith), opposes the idea but goes along with it for Gretel's sake. The couple say Braun is her cousin when a friend, Siemi (Darren Bridgett) drops by. Siemi is a minor government functionary for the Nazis. Both he and Karl are anti-Semitic, spouting the usual stereotypical complaints about Jews while Braun can say little to defend himself. He's even more vulnerable when Gretel is killed that very night. Apparently she was involved in a resistance group trying to help Jews get out of the country. The play goes on to examine the evolving relationship between Karl and Braun as Siemi climbs the bureaucratic ladder, becomes more powerful and apparently starts to buy into the Nazi philosophy.
Deciding what constitutes a "good" German at that time depends on one's interpretation of "good." Gretel certainly qualifies as good in a moral sense as she tries to fight the Nazi evil by saving Jews. Karl is a good German because he loves his country and hates what the Nazis are doing to despoil its proud history, especially in literature and the arts. He also takes the risk of breaking the law by harboring a Jew. Braun is a good German who has done nothing wrong except being the son and grandson of Jews. He's strictly into a survival mode but he tries to make Karl and sometimes even Siemi re-examine their prejudices. And Siemi is a good German because he's obeying the law and doing what's asked of him, even killing people. However, he risks his life by warning Karl and Braun that they are in imminent danger for their lives.
The play is full of powerful confrontations as well as probing discussions about how things came to be so bad in Germany. Siemi has one persuasive explanation: He says that Hitler has shown people that "it feels good to hate."
Director Kent Nicholson paces the action well, controlling the tension and guiding his excellent cast through some turbulent emotions. The period costumes are by Taisia Nikonishchenko with mood music and sound by Chris Houston.
This is a thought-provoking drama marked by strong acting and insightful direction. Because it also offers a window into the some of the horrors of Nazi Germany without showing the actual atrocities, I was pleased to see some students in the audience the night I attended. Perhaps they will be moved by what they experienced and will see the potential parallels to some events today.