At New Rep, a heroine’s tale, reductively told
WATERTOWN — It’s entirely understandable that the remarkable story of German college student Sophie Scholl, who led a courageous campaign of nonviolent resistance to the Nazis that led to her execution by guillotine in 1943 at the age of 21, would inspire David Meyers to write “We Will Not Be Silent.’’
And it’s entirely understandable that New Repertory Theatre artistic director Jim Petosa — who has made it his business during the Trump presidency to stage dramas that resound both as parables of protest and cries of warning against the dangers of authoritarianism — would seize the chance to stage the New England premiere of Meyers’s 2017 play.
But having your heart in the right place ultimately isn’t enough. Ardent, well-meaning, and timely though it is, “We Will Not Be Silent’’ ultimately does not succeed as drama, its narrative too often submerged beneath, or driven by, its determination to send a message about the perils of acquiescence, then and now. Too much of the dialogue carries the blunt force of an elbow in the ribs, and the play’s ending rings cloyingly false.
Still, at a time when the occupant of the Oval Office and his enablers are waging a systematic, nonstop assault on the idea that such a thing as truth even exists, it’s important that theater stand up for it, and “We Will Not Be Silent’’ certainly does that.
A ripple went through the opening night audience at New Rep when Sophie (Sarah Oakes Muirhead) — being interrogated in a Munich prison cell in February 1943 after being arrested along with her brother, Hans (Conor Proft), for distributing antiwar leaflets on a university campus — told Nazi police officer Kurt Grunwald (Tim Spears): “Just because you repeat a lie, doesn’t make it true.’’ The words “resist’’ or “resistance’’ recur a dozen times in the play, which is laced with affirmations of the rule of law, freedom of speech, the importance of taking action before it is too late, and the simple, ineradicable difference between right and wrong.
All well and good, obviously, but “We Will Not Be Silent’’ is too often ham-handed in driving home its points, and the play spins in repetitive circles at times, even though it runs only 90 minutes. There are, for instance, several scenes that essentially mirror the following exchange between Sophie and Grunwald. Her: “You know this is wrong.’’ Him: “I don’t have a choice.’’
This is the third straight New Rep season in which Petosa has directed a drama that revolves around the idea of resisting, or failing to resist, Nazi tyranny. He presided over an excellent March production of Kate Cayley’s “The Bakelite Masterpiece’’ (about an art forger accused of collaborating with German occupiers of Amsterdam who insists he actually duped them) and a less successful 2016 production of C.P. Taylor’s “Good’’ (about a German professor and writer who is drawn, one deadly rationalization after another, into the Nazi way of thinking).
“We Will Not Be Silent,’’ which premiered in July 2017 at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., follows a spate of books, films, and songs about Scholl. Playwright Meyers has a background in Republican politics — a decided rarity in theater — having worked for President George W. Bush for several years, then for the Senate Republican leadership. (He wrote a column for the Fox News website in May 2016, billed as “A message for my fellow Republicans,’’ arguing that “Donald Trump is unfit to be president of the United States for reasons almost too numerous to mention.’’)
There’s a level of drama inherent to any play that is structured as an interrogation, and the extraordinarily high stakes surrounding this particular cross-examination do yield a number of gripping moments as Grunwald pressures Sophie to publicly confess, renounce her actions, and betray her fellow dissidents in the “White Rose’’ organization. Prisoner and interrogator also range across questions of religious belief, the writings of Immanuel Kant, what happens after death, and what we should be willing to sacrifice for our principles.
Muirhead is a fine actress, and she ably conveys Sophie’s alternating resolution and fear, but she nonetheless seems constrained by a role that doesn’t allow for much variety. Spears, a frequent presence on the New Rep stage, acquits himself well for the most part, but he’s hobbled by the incongruity of the character he’s playing. The Nazi’s brutality is believable; his solicitude toward Sophie, especially a final gesture of solidarity and compassion, much less so.
WE WILL NOT BE SILENT
Play by David Meyers. Directed by Jim Petosa. Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At Mainstage Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, through Nov. 4. Tickets $25-$67, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org