Set in 1939, it would be easy to label “Sheltered,” New York theater artist and playwright Alix Sobler’s new play, a historical drama. It takes place in 1939, on the heels of the Anschluss, the Nazi invasion of Austria. Watching the two-act drawing room drama set on the heels of the Nazi invasion of Austria and elegantly staged by Theater J’s artistic director Adam Immerwahr, a cynic could take the play at face value. The conflict in this fictionalized drama has long past.
But with the unvarnished approach Sobler and Immerwahr have taken, it’s hard, near impossible, not to conclude that “Sheltered” is about us — where our nation is, how we as individuals are responding the unabating world refugee crisis today.
“Sheltered” is an engaging and clear-eyed study of the political and social prejudices that were rampant in the United States during the 1930s and ‘40s, which closed the entry gates to Jewish refugees when they most direly needed open borders.
Sobler opens the play in the Kirsch family’s well-appointed living room (designed by Paige Hathaway), as they welcome old friends Roberta and Martin Bloom. The Kirsches are well-off and enjoy luxuries in their Providence home: they’ve got a “girl” to cook and clean and a new Cadillac in the garage. Evie and Leonard also have an ulterior motive in reconnecting with the Blooms, old friends they haven’t seen in years.
Far from nefarious, the Kirsches need one more Jewish family in Providence to sign on to take in a Jewish child from Vienna, Austria, for somehow they’ve finagled 40 visas, as long as they have Americans willing to take in these refugee children.
While the play is fiction, it draws from the real-life story of a Philadelphia couple, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, who traveled to Nazi Germany in 1939 to bring 50 Jewish children to Philadelphia.
That fact is another cause of conflict. Steven Pressman, who wrote a book and made an HBO documentary film on the Krauses, both called “50 Children,” told WJW that Ms. Sobler “never bothered to seek my permission or approval in the course of writing her play, which was virtually a carbon-copy of my film and book.”
In response to Pressman’s criticism, Theater J said in a statement that the story of the Kraus family “was well documented” when Sobler wrote the play in “press articles and is well covered now in Holocaust history. … Sobler drew on many sources for her research, but ultimately crafted a wholly original story inspired by this remarkable, heroic story…”
In “Sheltered,” Erin Weaver and Theater J newcomer David Schlumpf play their roles as the Kirsches with aplomb, and when they are faced with the untenable Sophie’s Choice in the second act — culling down hundreds of applicants for just 40 children — particularly Weaver makes this impossible task gut-wrenching.
As the crasser, less noble couple, the Blooms, Kimberly Gilbert and Alexander Strain as Roberta and Martin, allow the witty pre-dinner repartee to descend into sniping, nearly name-calling. While the Kirsches marriage and idealism seem idyllic, almost too-perfect to be believed, the Blooms represent a family struggling, both economically — the Blooms are less financially comfortable and that has taken its toll — and interpersonally.
Playwright Sobler has dropped in some razor-sharp jabs at our current government leaders and the demoralizing status quo of the refugee crisis. Martin responds to Evie’s comment on the “dreadful news every time I turn on the radio” with a nonplussed, “Well, that’s their affair.” Later, an unintentional laugh line —“We live in a democracy; we must have faith in what our leaders are doing,” draws guffaws from the opening night audience.
When Evie and Roberta confront each other about their strained friendship, Roberta is incredulous at the risk Evie is willing to take: “Who do you think you are? … It’s 1939, what you’re saying is unfathomable – not possible” about Hitler’s impending destruction of Jewish life in much of Europe. And this tete a tete demonstrates two sides of performing good deeds — selfless generosity versus self-preservation. “I can’t just sit by and watch,” explains Evie, while her friend sarcastically calls her saintly.
Sobler strives to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable with this period piece aimed squarely at her comfortably middle-class theater going audiences. She hopes her baldly presented conflicts will induce her viewers to reflect on the current refugees fleeing Syria, East Africa and Central America seeking safe havens.
A noble effort, “Sheltered” does exactly what it set out to do. Act I’s witty repartee plays like a comedy of manners with talk of baseball, Thornton Wilder’s then-brand-new drama “Our Town,” challenging children and jobs. The female actors exude glamor in Kelsey Hunt’s floor-length gowns, while the men are stolid in their vested suits. The drama slowly heats up in Act II, set in a Vienna hotel room, yet even when an Austrian mother arrives to plead her case restraint rules. And, alas, McLean Fletcher’s German accent as that suffering mother Hani Mueller is nearly comical at times.
All in all, “Sheltered” hits all the right chords, but it feels too overly calculated and pat for an audience as sophisticated as Theater J’s.
“Sheltered” by Alix Sobler, at Theater J through Feb. 2; Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street, NW, Washington; $25-$69; call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.