- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2007

Kurt Gerstein (Paul Morella) is the sheepish wolf of the SS. He’s the Nazi with the mostest: an evangelical Lutheran with a conscience; a brilliant fumigation and sanitation expert; a devoted son, family man and — party member.

How Mr. Gerstein reconciles duty and morality in light of the Nazi atrocities he personally witnesses is the central issue in Australian author Thomas Keneally’s first venture into playwriting, the historical drama “Either Or.” The frequently fiery examination of the nature of ambivalence is receiving a world premiere at Theater J, directed by Daniel De Raey.

Mr. Keneally has experience with good Samaritans working amid absolute evil, having written “Schindler’s Ark,” the book that became the movie “Schindler’s List.” It was during research for this book that Mr. Keneally chanced upon the odd story of Kurt Gerstein, a committed member of the SS who became a covert whistleblower by alerting the Allies and trying to contact the Vatican over the chemical extermination of thousands of Jews per day in concentration camps.

He turned himself in to Allied officials after the war and was found hanged in his cell in 1945. Mr. Gerstein left behind evidence and papers detailing Nazi activities, and these writings led to his being declared a righteous gentile by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel.

Ironically, it is Gerstein’s aid in developing the compound of choice, Zyklon-B, originally intended for louse and vermin infestations, that brings about the efficient use of chemicals for large-scale human slaughter. Gerstein sees his invention in action in various concentration camps and is sickened; yet he still does his job.

The “Either Or” in the title does not refer to the battle between good and evil but the relative benevolence of being killed quickly by Zyklon-B or the previous, torturously slow and unpredictable method of carbon monoxide poisoning.

As portrayed with rigid posture and considerable angst by Mr. Morella, Gerstein wanders through Nazi Germany like an idealistic, wrongheaded naif. He’s a Teflon bureaucrat — nothing really sticks to him. One imagines this is meant to evoke sympathy for the character, but although you feel a glint of sorrow for the guy, your overall response is repulsion.

We are supposed to believe Gerstein is literally blinded by his principles and that his faith in a compassionate God allows him to justify working in the midst of unfathomable horrors.

He also is seen as a cog in the system, which is why the Nazi regime was so successful. Everyone played a part small enough that each almost could rationalize his actions because he was just doing his job, just following orders. Still, Gerstein’s efforts to alert the outside world seem pitifully desperate and a matter of “too little, too late.” He comes across not as a restless saint but as a self-serving man who tries to cleanse himself of the blood on his hands.

Gerstein’s opaqueness makes him an uneasy entry into the play, and while John Lescault and Conrad Feininger vividly portray an array of characters swirling in and out of the action, you feel like a witness to history rather than a participant. Two female characters, Gerstein’s long-suffering wife, Elfriede (Elizabeth H. Richards) and Bertha (Meghan Grady), the mentally ill sister-in-law he obsessed over, are meant to humanize the proceedings, but they are merely symbols of womanhood, and tired ones at that.

Gerstein fascinates as a strange footnote to World War II, and perhaps “Either Or” would have made an excellent documentary, as this flat style of filmmaking would best suit the atrocities described. As a play, it needs work; the first act contains piles of exposition and narrative, and you never get an emotional stronghold into the story until well into the second half.

The places where the play ignites are almost wordless — such as a galvanizing scene in which Gerstein and his fellow officers wait in excruciating silence while a sickly smiling officer demonstrates the so-called effectiveness of carbon monoxide poisoning. Later on, in a mirror scene, an SS officer throws Zyklon-B capsules into a hole and callously bids the victims adieu as the voices and screams below die out quickly.

More scenes containing that kind of searing, speechless intensity would have given “Either Or” some of the power of Mr. Keneally’s “Schindler’s Ark.”

***

WHAT: “Either Or” by Thomas Keneally

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

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through June 3.

TICKETS: $15 to $45

PHONE: 800/494-TIXS

WEB SITE: www.washingtonjcc.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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