At its best, historical theater is more personal than historical. One goes to Macbeth not to sharpen one’s understanding of 11th-century Scottish politics, but to meet credibly human figures whose passions — ambition, arrogance, greed, and envy, let’s say — just happen to affect a kingship and start a war. It’s their humanity that makes Lady Macbeth, Richard III and Henry V so compelling, and when we leave the theater, it’s their personalities we remember. If we also learn a little about our shared past, so much the better. But a play isn’t a history book; it can even get lots of details wrong and still be deeply moving.
I note this in order to explain the strengths and weaknesses of Judgment at Nuremberg, currently appearing at Stageworks in an intermittently successful production. This unusual play, about the trial of Nazi judges whose decisions abetted genocide in World War II, offers history writ large, in which case our response is mostly intellectual, and history writ small, in which case we care, and care deeply. It also offers two sorts of acting: complex and simplistic. Consider, for example, Jim Wicker, who plays the American head of the tribunal weighing the Nazi judges’ cases. Wicker does a crackerjack job of humanizing Judge Haywood, convincing us that he’s an old-fashioned Southerner with a real sense of honor, a modest and charmingly self-deprecating man. This is how the part’s written, and Wicker seems born for it — one can hardly imagine it played any other way. But for an opposite case, there’s Ryan Bernier as Colonel Parker, the chief prosecutor for the Allies. Bernier paints the canvas of this character with few colors; he gives us no shadings, no contradictions, just attitudes without detail. Since Abby Mann’s writing of this part is itself bland and frontal, the result is a character we can’t believe in, a mere function. To say it another way: When the writing of a play is as wooden as Mann’s often is, we need the actors to lend some idiosyncrasies to their parts.
And several do. Derrick Phillips is wonderful as Oscar Rolfe, the attorney for the Nazis. Phillips’ Rolfe is a legal virtuoso, quick to spot any weakness in the case against his clients, while never betraying anything like sympathy for Nazi crimes. Also first-rate are Greg Thompson, as one of Haywood’s fellow judges, and Hugh Timoney as Ernst Janning, the only one of the accused with anything like a conscience. One of the most satisfying performances is turned in by Elizabeth G. Fendrick, who plays a German woman widowed by the war. As she carries on a demure flirtation with Judge Haywood, we come to like her and believe in her reality; but when she claims ignorance of the murders that fueled the Nazi terror, we’re brought face to face with the distressing but all-too-understandable human capacity for self-deception. In another small part, Marie-Claude Tremblay is sympathetic: She plays a German who was accused during the war of having intimate relations with an elderly Jewish man. That man was executed; and Tremblay’s character, years later, is still anguished, tormented. This is the human side of history, and when it’s prominent — and when the actor can handle it — Nuremberg works.
Sometimes not even a fine actor can save the script, though. One watches this play without fully knowing what particular crimes the defendants are accused of. Of the three Nazi judges, only Janning gets much stage time, and the other two remain mostly ciphers, give or take the odd expostulation. Shouldn’t we always know what these alleged criminals did, beyond participating in the general Nazi horror? Why these three and not three others? The play’s direction, by Karla Hartley and Matthew Ray, tries impressively to remind us, with film clips and slides, of the magnitude of the Nazi evil, and Hartley’s set references the Holocaust with masses of shoes, shirts, and suitcases supporting the judges and defendants’ areas. Even so, a nebulous case of iniquity is a poor substitute for specific dates, victims, details. It only takes one Anne Frank to stir the world’s outrage, but Nuremberg lacks such a central, defining figure.
Still, the production’s strengths shouldn’t be discounted: I left the theater thinking about Wicker and Fendrick’s performances, and feeling good in the knowledge that at the end of a bestial war, civilization had the wisdom to put the beasts on trial. I admit I wanted more; but these virtues aren’t insignificant. Even with its defects, Judgment at Nuremberg has something to offer.