- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

Let me say up front that I have trouble with works dealing with the softer side of Nazis. While intellectually I know that Nazi soldiers had families, friends, pets and no doubt dealt with a plethora of emotions, I have a tough time rounding up sympathy for the soldiers who killed members of my family.

Forgiveness is another matter. Forgiveness is a gift we give others and ourselves. But that doesn't mean I necessarily want to spend my leisure time seeing depictions of the Gestapo.

That said, I found John Strand's "The Diaries" fascinating. Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., commissioned the work and also is staging it.

The play's portrait of Stefan Altsanger (Edward Gero) reborn as revered entomologist Steve Alton after the war is complex and intriguing. After all, here is a brilliant man, both a scientist and a novelist, who firmly believes that by performing his role as an observer and reporter he is not part of the Nazi terror.

The play's inspiration is, in part, Ernst Junger (1895 to 1998), a German writer, entomologist and Nazi captain assigned to occupied Paris. He kept a diary of his time in France and on the Russian front in the Caucasus. His diaries are still regarded as an important record of what it was like to live in a city under siege.

Mr. Strand takes Junger's story as a jumping-off point. His play begins in 1978, when Alton is being feted for his lifetime achievement in studying bugs and butterflies. An intense historian (played by Daniel Frith) confronts Alton after the ceremony with the forbidden diaries he thought were destroyed along with so much of his past.

Steve Alton dissolves away to Stefan Altsanger as he explains the diaries and the motivations behind them both to the historian and to himself. Actors Julia Coffey, Mr. Frith and Sybil Lines vigorously depict the various characters that swirl in and out of Stefan Altsanger's past.

On the surface, the writing is damning: How can someone describe the execution of a 19-year-old member of the French Resistance in one sentence and then go on to a breathless depiction of a butterfly in the next? Why is the writing so cold and scientific, with endless entries about parties with author Jean Cocteau and painter Pablo Picasso, trips to the Comedie Francaise and dinner at swanky restaurants?

At times, it seems Stefan is behaving like a tourist in France, as he visits all the famous churches, cemeteries, boulevards and monuments. Some of his entries are like postcards, so dogged is he to capture the often mundane details of life in occupied Paris.

You begin to wonder if he's not just a brilliant scientist and writer lost in his own world of careful observation, or some sort of idiot savant. How can he write about cocktail parties with his friend, the drop-dead soignee Doctress (the glorious Miss Lines), while Jews are being rounded up and executed on a daily basis right before his eyes?

Stefan claims he didn't see the Nazi atrocities or perhaps he willed himself not to see. Stefan views himself as an "artist-soldier," a moral man of feeling who is defending his homeland Germany in times of war. He is a patriot, not a Nazi.

Mr. Gero portrays a man of duty so beautifully and almost tenderly you begin to think that Stefan is merely a good man in the wrong place. But then, how does Stefan explain the insomnia and nightmares?

In his mind, being a detached reporter may absolve him, but not quite. "The Diaries" details Stefan's benevolence, as he bestows favors on his artist and writer friends. He keeps another diary, which tells the whole truth (conveniently destroyed in a bombing). He also falls in love with Charmille (Miss Coffey), a plucky young woman who uses Stefan's influence to obtain false identity papers for Jews.

There is redemption of sorts when Stefan, because of his verboten diaries and his relationship with Charmille, is sent to the Russian front, a particular hell in itself. One guesses we are supposed to feel warmly toward Stefan after he befriends a comically forthright soldier (Mr. Frith, vivid and immediately present in a variety of roles).

Mr. Strand goes to great lengths to exonerate Stefan. Numerous scenes many turgid and overwrought explain Stefan's actions and the bind in which he found himself. A strain of 1940s melodrama is at work in the play, adding to its crushing weight.

You wish the playwright had trusted the actors more and trusted more the intriguing idea of a moralist caught in a war. Making striking characters out of the unsympathetic can be done look at the depiction of the Marquis de Sade in "Quills."

But Stefan's defense that he was a scientific observer, a bystander, falls apart. To do nothing is a decision; taking no action is an action in itself.


**

WHAT: "The Diaries" by John Strand and directed by P.J. Paparelli

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, through July 14

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington

TICKETS:$24 to $30

PHONE: 800/955-5566 or 703/218-6500

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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