Theater Review: “We Will Not Be Silent” — A Vital Cautionary Tale
New Rep’s production of We Will Not Be Silent is an intelligent and profoundly moving work of theater.
We Will Not Be Silent by David Meyers. Directed by Jim Petosa. Staged by New Repertory Theatre, MainStage, at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA through November 4.
By Erik Nikander
I saw We Will Not Be Silent on October 28, 2018. The day before, eleven Jews were murdered at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of them a survivor of the Holocaust. A gripping and disturbing study of the influence of Nazism has been transformed, by current events, into a chilling, cautionary tale about our times. Even if the script were not so (unfortunately) relevant to America circa 2018, We Will Not Be Silent would still be a remarkable work of art. New Repertory Theatre’s production, though not lacking in creativity, is never overly flashy — and this is to its benefit. The company’s straightforward take on the show enhances the script’s emotional power.
The play, written by David Meyers, tells the real-life story of Sophie Scholl (Sarah Oakes Muirhead), a leader of the White Rose student resistance movement, which opposed the Nazis. Arrested while distributing anti-Nazi leaflets, Sophie and her brother Hans (Conor Proft) are isolated and then interrogated by police. As Grunwald (Tim Spears) tries to extract information about White Rose from Sophie, he begins to doubt his allegiance to Hitler’s regime. At the same time, Sophie is forced to consider the possibility of naming names. Would saving her own life be worth dooming her friends to torture and execution at the hands of the SS?
New Rep’s striking set, designed by Ryan Bates, serves as an apt visual metaphor for the piece as a whole. Half of Sophie’s interrogation room looks normal; the other half seems to be in the process of being blown apart, with chunks of the dingy wall suspended in space mid-explosion. It is a visual metaphor: Sophie’s bright future is breaking up before her eyes while Grunwald’s concrete-solid moral outlook is beginning to crumble. The room itself takes up only a small portion of the stage, the rest of the space is empty space, its corridors bathed in shadow. This unusual staging choice puts the audience off-balance from the beginning of the production, creating an atmosphere of tension and isolation.
This isolation is key to Sophie’s predicament, in which she is cut off from those closest to her. She realizes early on that she can only rely on her own wits and convictions to survive. Muirhead expertly captures Sophie’s moral resolve as well as her youth, her all-too-understandable fear when confronted with the very real possibility she may die for what she believes in. As brave as she is, the character feels like a convincingly fallible human being, beset by real fears and doubts. Muirhead’s vibrant performance ensures that Sophie’s internal dilemma (as well as the overall action of the play) never feels like a foregone conclusion.
As a character, Grunwald is less straightforward. He is a Nazi and actively works to carry out Hitler’s vision, though he confides to Sophie he supports the idea of the White Rose — on a personal level. He’s a fearsome figure, relentlessly grilling Sophie about her “treason,” but even his cruelty is peppered throughout with small instances of kindness. Grunwald is not a good person; Spears does not present him as one. But the actor imbues him with humane doubts and uncertainties. Grunwald is capable of being sympathetic, but he is, essentially, a weak man. Spears renders that weakness heartbreaking.
Given that We Will Not Be Silent takes place entirely within an interrogation room, the actors have limited space to work with. Fortunately, director Jim Petosa still finds ample opportunity to enhance the meaning of the text through movement. For instance, in one scene where Grunwald is trying to play “good cop” and endear himself to Sophie, he sits cross-legged on the floor beside her. She remains seated in a chair. The power dynamic may not have genuinely changed, but Grunwald tries to give Sophie the impression that she holds the cards. In another brilliant symbolic moment, when Grunwald tries to convince Sophie her efforts to fight the Nazis are futile, he flicks little balls of paper at a sturdy metal chair — they bounce off, without a hope in the world of making a dent.
We Will Not Be Silent’s script occasionally serves up its exposition heavy-handedly, but its exploration of World War II-era Germany allows for an examination of the pernicious psychological influence of fascism. Unlike theatre productions that are content to skewer Donald Trump’s buffoonish ego (not an especially challenging task), We Will Not Be Silent provides a meaningful and nuanced way to make sense of the populist groundswell driving our current president’s rise to power. Even Sophie, in her childhood naiveté, was won over by the sense of excitement and pride that accompanied Hitler’s white nationalism. But she grew to understand the evil of Nazism. Perhaps those taken in by promises to “Make America Great Again” will eventually do the same, but “eventually” may take too long.
New Rep’s fine production of We Will Not Be Silent is at the service of an intelligent and profoundly moving work of theatre. Unlike their previous production’s shallow, surface-level attempts at social commentary (Straight White Men), this play is willing to dig deep into the connections between human nature and fascism. The creative team, led by Muirhead’s courageous performance, celebrates Scholl’s heroic opposition to evil. Their work also prompts an indispensable question: Would we be willing to do the same?
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.