- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

How much do we owe our teachers, the seminal people in our lives who taught us how to think? This is the question pondered by political philosopher Hannah Arendt (Elizabeth Rich) in Kate Fodor’s searing play “Hannah and Martin,” in a striking and cerebral production at Theater J under the direction of Jeremey B. Cohen.

Miss Arendt’s most important teacher was none other than Martin Heidegger (John Lescault), the controversial and highly original thinker and Nazi sympathizer. Miss Arendt, a Jew, was his pupil in the classroom and the bedroom. He awakened her mind and, briefly, her body, in an intense affair before he brusquely sent her off to study with Karl Jaspers, the existentialist philosopher from Heidelberg.

Fearing Nazi persecution, Miss Arendt in 1941 fled to America, where she wrote for numerous publications — including covering the Nuremberg trials for the New Yorker and published such major political books as “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and “The Human Condition.”

Mr. Heidegger, on the other hand, joined Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) in 1930 and was a supporter of Nazi politics until he started delivering critical lectures in the late 1930s and early ‘40s. Following Germany’s defeat in World War II, Mr. Heidegger was forbidden in 1945 to teach, and in 1946, he was dismissed from his chair of philosophy at Freiburg University, a ban that wasn’t lifted until 1949.

“Hannah and Martin” centers on the combustive relationship between the two brainiacs and also Miss Arendt’s crisis of conscience. Should she reconsider her earlier stance on prohibiting Mr. Heidegger from teaching and write a letter of support?

As she grapples with this moral and ethical sticky wicket, her constant refrain is: “Who will suffer from this ban? The students.” She looks beyond social forces and the banality of evil to see her mentor as a great mind and a profound influence on her development as a political thinker. The world may not forgive Mr. Heidegger for his Nazi affiliation, but she can.

Perhaps forgiveness is not what Miss Arendt seeks, but understanding. In a fiery, second-act showdown many years later, when Miss Arendt is in Germany covering the Nuremberg trials, teacher and pupil finally meet again.

Instead of a god, Miss Arendt encounters a shell of a man, his health compromised by being sent by the Nazi regime to dig trenches at the Rhine in 1944 and his mind made turbulent by not being able to teach or wrestle with big ideas.

She wants him to explain so that forgiveness can come forth, but instead of explanations, he gives excuses, claiming never to have read “Mein Kampf” and saying that he was attracted to Hitler because they both loved Wagner and the classic philosophy of the Greeks. In a breathtaking confession that mirrors the way many people justified their actions, Mr. Heidegger says he picked and chose what he admired about the Nazi regime and refused to acknowledge the rest. His motives were pure, he contends, his head in the clouds.

Is this enough to let Mr. Heidegger off the hook? Miss Arendt never gives us a definite answer, but we can plainly see she is both moved and alarmed over what her mentor has become. Oddly enough, the showdown between the two is a fireworks display of ideas, intellect and pain, but with very little emotional payoff. That could be because Mr. Lescault does not completely convince us of Mr. Heidegger’s bombastic effect on people. We see his aloofness and, later on, his bellowing rage and confusion — but not his power.

However, we do see Miss Arendt’s terrifying charisma and fascinating extremes in Miss Rich’s performance.

Playwright Kate Fodor has written a juicy role combining restless intellect and huge, physical rawness, and Miss Rich inhabits every ravenous inch.

Together, Miss Rich and Mr. Lescault are more convincing in the philosophical scenes than the amatory ones, although there is a sexy moment when he kisses the fabric of her dress and she becomes undone in an awkward, humbled fashion that just breaks your heart. Physically, we never feel the anguished attraction between the two of them, and the emotional charge of the play comes in Act II in a scene between Miss Arendt and Mr. Heidegger’s worn-down wife, Elfride (Kimberly Schraf).

“Hannah and Martin” is a talky play, and Mr. Cohen tries to circumvent this with a production that swirls and moves like the coils of smoke emanating from Miss Arendt’s ever-present cigarettes. In a marvelously non-PC moment, she even instructs a gullible student that “smoking helps with the thought process.”

“Hannah and Martin” is not an apologist play, nor an attempt to see how a man of such intellectual gifts could also be pro-Nazi. Instead, it is a study of pain, of the deep pain Martin Heidegger caused Hannah Arendt and how that anguish shaped her, misshaped her and formed the backbone of her political philosophies.

Without such pain, she would not have had such a mind.

WHAT: “Hannah and Martin,” by Kate Fodor

WHERE: Theater J, DC-JCC, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 6 p.m. Saturdays, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through June 5.

TICKETS: $25 to $36

PHONE: 202/777-3214

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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