Despite a fascinating historic subject, Equilicuá Producciones’ New York premiere of Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga’s Way to Heaven gets lost along the road due to casting, directorial, and occasional writing problems. The script has moments of tremendous beauty and profundity, but the production team should have stopped to ask for directions on this circuitous trip to paradise. For subject matter, Mayorga could not have reached higher or tackled a more satisfyingly dramatic story. The play presents fragments of personal stories around the Theresienstadt concentration camp run by the Nazis during World War II. When the Danish government insists on sending the Red Cross in to evaluate conditions at Theresienstadt, the Nazis revamp the camp into a public relations tool to convince the world that the concentration camps for Jewish and political prisoners are innocuous little villages with balloon sellers in the town square, quaint little synagogues, orchestras playing daily, and joyous inmates.
This historically accurate deception concealed the fact that inmates were constantly being shipped to extermination camps at Auschwitz, over a quarter of the inmates were dying of hunger or disease-- and of the 15,000 Jewish children that were enrolled in Theresienstadt’s fake schools, art programs, and sports leagues, less than 100 would survive the war.
The play is structured into five scenes, the first of which is the weakest, getting the evening off to a rocky start. Shawn Parr plays the Danish Red Cross worker who tours the camp and signs an extremely rosy report on the conditions of the inmates. Unfortunately the script gives him and the audience no clue who he is talking to. He recites an oral history of his experiences that has all the charm and character of a high school text book entry. Inexplicably he is wearing an overcoat and plaid pajamas, which contributes to a bewildering lack of context and place. And while Parr has a nice speaking voice, that doesn’t really compensate for a lack of character and notable line problems.
The second scene contains the largest cast. Their energy, and the most inventive staging of the evening from director Matthew Earnest, liven things up a bit. The ensemble plays camp inmates called upon to perform bogus village-life scenes, scripted by the camp commandant. Ten-year-old Samantha Rahn (The Girl) is the clear, luminous stand out. Rahn has an extraordinary presence and composure for such a young actress. She was transplanted from the American premiere of the play in Raleigh, NC. The only other exquisitely cast actor in the play is another transplant from the same production, Francisco Reyes (The Commandant).
Reyes takes welcome center stage in scene three, delivering a riveting monologue to an unseen Red Cross worker with all the oily charm of a seasoned bureaucratic grifter. The script provides Reyes the opportunity to shine that it denied Parr. There is never a doubt who Reyes is talking to, where he is, or what lies beneath the surface his charming, lying, well-met exterior. Reyes is picture perfect as a Nazi poster boy for maniacal artifice and seductive guile.
Scene four features a duologue between Reyes’ Commandant and Mark Farr as the camp’s Jewish mayor, Gershom Gottfried. Reyes continues to deliver, but his philosophy-obsessed, theater-loving Commandant does not find an adequate foil in Farr. Farr’s Gottfried is clearly the emotional heart of the play. He is given the tortured power to decide which inmates will be “cast” in the production and which will be sent for extermination. But, Earnest could hardly have found a less tortured or tragic-looking actor. Farr is a pleasant, placid-looking, even-keeled man who never sells the idea that he is suffering crippling moral dilemmas. His helpless fury over being forced to send children to gas chambers looks a bit more like a petulant sulk over losing a squash game at the gym. The last scene, the emotional climax delivered as a monologue by Farr, falls flat on this lack of expressiveness. Rahn, however, does a nice job bringing some pathos to the final moments as a doomed child about to be swallowed by the Nazi death machine.
The Way to Heaven presents an interesting look at this little known curiosity of World War II history, and the performances by Rahn and Reyes manage to be very haunting. But, fair warning, the road to heaven is a little bumpy. Seat belts recommended.