By Sam Pynes
I had the honor of attending the preview performance of Nancy Shank’s This Mortal Life Also, which tells the fascinating and dramatic story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a central figure of the German Resistance during WWII.
Before seeing this play, I did not know much about him except his insightful theory of stupidity which posits that stupidity in a society is more dangerous than malice. To that end, I cannot inform the reader of the accuracy of the history, though I felt like I formed a complete picture of the man and his time by the play’s end. I can however say with utter confidence that this is the best play that I have seen yet this season, and that it was both beautifully written and performed.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a man who would rather be preaching, writing books, and playing music with his family, but who must find his way through a clouded and chaotic time. What could have been presented as a simple elegy for a martyr, instead tells a nuanced story of an extraordinarily ordinary man who was forced to make hard choices, exhibit great bravery, and struggle to travel the path he was called to even in the midst of turmoil. Given the very reasonable choice to avoid the brewing conflict in his country and escape to America, he ultimately chooses to stay. “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?,” he quotes from Isaiah, “Here am I. Send me!” Bonhoeffer is indeed sent both because he chooses to go, and because he asks to be chosen. He accepts a rough path with many snares, not in a reckless bid for heroic self-sacrifice, but a genuine love for his fellow countrymen and a desire to thrive with them. As he says in the play, “Germany is the memories of those I love and the promise of a future we want to share. It’s home. One can’t easily let go of all that.” Bonhoeffer’s true patriotism and love for the land of his birth, very distinct from state and party, is a contrast which is still important and relevant in our own day. His attitude brought to mind Chesterton’s “A Defense of Patriotism,” in which the Englishman decries Jingoism saying “For the first of all the marks of love is seriousness: love will not accept sham bulletins or the empty victory of words. It will always esteem the most candid counsellor the best.” Bonhoeffer gave his life in the attempt to be Germany’s candid counselor in its darkest hour.
The story of the Bonhoeffers is presented in a wonderfully natural way, and I found the romantic subplot especially poignant, in part because it seemed so ordinary. I was reminded of C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Living in an Atomic Age,” in which, in response to worries over the new weapons of the Cold War, he reminds the reader that a new threat does not change the manner in which humans should be human: to thrive in uncertainty. Thus even in the midst of war Dietrich and Marie’s (Lillian Bornstein) very human courtship plays itself out with great sensitivity.
Matthew Lukasiewicz (Bonhoeffer) leads an outstanding cast that each lends their character an emotional arc, including even the villain Theodor Heckel (Eric Moyer), whose very human insecurities shine through, even if we can’t sympathize with his malevolent antagonism toward the Bonhoeffers.
Playwright Nancy Shank carefully crafted this play over the past six years, and it went through multiple readings over some seven drafts before emerging as the polished work presented this weekend. In a recent podcast interview she discussed how she was motivated to write her first play in an attempt to understand Bonhoeffer as a real human man, and not just as the Christian theologian.
Director Timothy Scholl is clearly passionate about Angel’s commitment to new work, and his expertise as a dramaturg helped to craft this play from script to stage. Incidentally, Scholl is very distantly related to Hans and Sophie Scholl of The White Rose who also gave their young lives resisting the evils of Nazism. In the aforementioned interview he explains that he avoided Nazi iconography until it was absolutely necessary to the story because this is not a story about Nazism, but about the Bonhoeffer family as they navigate this horrible time in their country’s history, a tight intention that very much shines through. I was also glad that accents were avoided, which may have marred the naturalism of the play. The mannerisms of the characters were enough to evoke the time, place, and nationality of the characters.
Each scene had an artful and naturalistic flow and thematic threads had consistent spotlights as each progressed to the end. The play concluded with a satisfying callback to the first scene and the central relationship between the siblings, but I still found myself wondering if there could have been a way to keep a closer connection to Bonhoeffer himself through to the final curtain, though perhaps that feeling of absence was in itself an artful intention. The only other scene that had me wondering about the staging was one wherein the antagonist watches on during a tearful goodbye. I think it worked, but there was a bit of awkward space which stood out in a play that is otherwise very economical about the characters in each scene.
Artfully patterned lights, three banners, and a simple set allow the characters to carry this story with atmosphere, but without distraction. This was clearly a very collaborative work that speaks with a clear and confident voice. Some evidence for the commitment of the creative team to the story occurred during the first act of the preview when a bat, not an uncommon uninvited guest in any theater, swooped around our heads: the audience flinched, but the actors were so invested that, whether or not they noticed, they did not miss a beat. Thankfully the bat must have been caught or coaxed back outside because he did not give an encore performance in the second act.
If this original work represents the kind of quality that we can expect in Lincoln’s future then we have a lot to be excited about and look forward to as our arts community continues to grow. Thank you Angels Theatre for bringing this powerful story to life.
If you go: This Mortal Life Also runs March 17-20 at 7:30PM with an additional performance on Sunday March 20th at 2PM at the Johnny Carson Theater in the Lied Center. The show runs about 2.5 hours including one intermission. Per the The Lied Center website, ticket inquiries can be made at 402-472-4747.
Sam Pynes is an actor, writer, and story enthusiast. Mostly harmless. Current Managing Editor of Appearing Locally.
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