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A CurtainUp Review

The Garden of Hanna List

Christine Jones as Hannah List
(Photo: Jonathan Slaff)
It's not every play that can boast a horticultural designer as part of its crafts team. But Rachel Bones' lush flowers and bushes deserve credit. Her roses and ferns greatly enhance the mood and authenticity of the garden (designed by Mark Symczak) in which Michael McKeever's combination political thriller and family drama unfolds.

The bright colors of the foliage and the aura of the garden's tranquility set the mood for the contrast between the world inside and outside. The garden is at the rear of the home where Hannah List the now fifty-something and still beautiful retired history teacher and her late husband raised their children to be decent people. Encroaching on that peaceful picture of good Germans living a good life is the Germany that has been caught in the iron grip of the Nazis in the late 1930s.

A set of French doors lead to the inside of this house we never see but which exudes a sense of many happy memories. A gate at the side of the garden leads to the streets of Nuremberg and the turmoil which will come to a boil in Act II, during Kristallnacht.

To further underscore the collision between the good and bad Germany, there's the incidental music. Even before the lights dim and in between each of the six scenes we hear the voices of the Comedian Harmonists who were the toast of Berlin from 1927 until they were forced to split up because some of their members were Jewish. Hannah List (Christine Jones) and her family are also torn asunder by the Nazis' anti-semitic policies even though none of them are Jewish. In fact Hannah is well connected to influential Nazis and often dines with Nazi higher ups and maintains a relationship witha former student who now proudly wears an SS uniform and spouts the Nazi creed. It is her friendship with these people that is at the heart of the family conflict -- and the play's mystery angle. Mr. McKeever smartly sets up both plot elements in the first two scenes

Scene one is brief and wordless, showing Hannah cutting and arranging white roses into a vase. When she's done, she puts the flowers at the base of a Madonna near the garden gate and crosses herself. The flower arranging is repeated several times during the play, with the white roses changing to pink and then red (from purity to blood red?).

Scene two assembles Hannah's family -- son Oscar (Anthony Hagopian), a successful Berlin businessman, his fiance Karma (Kimberly Kay), an actress, daughter Lottie (Kendra Bahneman) and her husband Rudy (David Fitzgerald). This bright and attractive, chattering foursome suggests a drawing room comedy more than a political thriller.

As indicated by a raunchy ditty about Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler, none have any real love or respect for the Nazis. Only Oscar, however, is convinced that this is more than a passing phase. He has applied for an exit visa to America and hopes to persuade his family to join him. Sister Lottie is, like Oscar appalled at her mother's tolerance of the Nazis, but she is totally under the influence of Rudy. The latter is a pragmatist whose declaration that "part of us thrives on hatred" hints at what one might expect from him as the Nazi power becomes total. Karma is totally apolitical and hardly as gung ho to leave Germany as her fiance.

By the time Hannah and the four young people move inside the house for dinner, the stage is set for the familial and moral conflict to follow, as well as the mystery. To divulge how moral debate and mystery merge would be to spoil the experience. Suffice it to say, that both offer enough surprises to offset the play's tilt from psychodrama to melodrama, with some moments that stretch credulity and reason.

Director Henry Fonte swiftly and smoothly moves the cast of nine from scene to scene, with nary a dull moment. Christine Jones gives a moving performance of depth and complexity as the leading character. She receives strong support from the rest of the cast. I was particularly impressed by David Fitzgerald, whom I've recently seen as a likeable young reporter (in Alison's House) and a hapless new playwright (in Heart of the Art) shows himself to be equally adept as a much less endearing character. Callum Keith-King, manages to make the play's key Nazi, Otto, interesting and unstereotypical. Ryan Hilliard is spot on as the butler who, hovers around the edges of the drama. Kendra Bahneman's big scene -- her confrontation with her one-time fiance, Otto -- is less than compelling but then this scene is an indulgence on the author's part that would strain any actor's capabilities.

The flaws in the moral debate and the mystery, notwithstanding, The Garden of Hannah List, adds up to two hours of provocative, well-staged entertainment. Yes it's political and polemical. Yes, it takes excessive literary license, but it also steps beyond the bounds of typical Nazi drama.

A postscript for anyone curious about the genesis of this play: Playwright Michael McKeever says it was inspired by a family friend who "as a little girl actually sat on ly sat on Hermann Goering's lap." The current production is the New York premiere of the play which was produced in South Florida in the 1997-98 season and won the South Florida Critics' Association's Carbonell Award for Best New Work.

Written by Michael McKeever
Directed by Henry Fonte

With: Kendra Bahneman, Christine Jones, Patrick Buonaiuto, Kimberly Kay, David Fitzgerald, Callum Keith-King, Antony Hagopian, JosephMacDougall, Ryan Hilllard
Set Design: Mark Symczak
Lighting Design: Rychard Curtiss
Costume Design:Marie Anne Chlment
Sound Design: Richard L. Sirois
Fight Director: Dale Girard
Horticultural Design: Rachel Bones
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Theater of the New 14th St. Y, 344 E. 14th St. (4th/2nd Avs) 642-8582
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/10 performance

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