Becky Frohlinger as Girl and Jordan Pettle as Gottried (Dylan Hewlett)
"At work, at home," says one of the characters in Way To Heaven, "we've all had to pretend sometime, haven't we?" The truth of that statement is at the heart of this powerful drama, but here we see how "pretend" was used to twisted ends by the Nazi regime.
Spanish writer Juan Mayorga's play (given its Canadian premiere here by Winnipeg Jewish Theatre) is based on the real story of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Used as a propaganda tool by the Nazis, the camp was "beautified" before a visit by international Red Cross workers in 1944, and prisoners forced to play out a perverse fiction for the observers, acting as contented villagers in a "civilian internment camp." Once the workers were gone, most of those "actors" were sent on to extermination camps.
How could the observers have been so duped? And how could the Nazis have pulled off such a successful deception? These are the questions Mayorga asks here, and they make for riveting drama in WJT's production.
Mayorga tells the story with an unusual structure. Rather than a straight-forward narrative, the tale is told from three different vantage points: first in a post-war monologue from a Red Cross observer (Graham Ashmore), then in a series of vignettes showing the prisoners rehearsing for the farce (featuring fine performances by a sextet of students from the Gray Academy), and finally in exchanges between the camp commandant (Arne MacPherson) and Gottfried, the Jewish inmate compelled to act as the "mayor" of the village (Jordan Pettle).
It's a structural approach that's jarring, but it underlines Mayorga's themes - in looking at the story from these three angles, we see that truth can become a subjective thing. "Do not trust your eyes," says the commandant in a moment of frankness. (Ironically, given that theme, the action on stage is framed by a stunningly, sadly beautiful set by Janelle Regalbuto - centred around the ramp ironically called "the way to heaven," as it lead prisoners to the trains that would take them to their fate.)
This story presents a considerable challenge from a production standpoint - we have actors playing actors masking a terrible underlying reality. By and large, Michael Nathanson's production handles this challenge admirably.
Arne MacPherson is stunning as the commandant - part calculating villain and part fretting stage director, he provides some of the play's more chilling moments along with moments of grim humour. Working with minimal dialogue, Jordan Pettle is likewise outstanding. His Gottfried shows much of the horror of the situation in mute, but telling, reactions to the demands of the commandant.
Graham Ashmore's Red Cross observer begins the show with a monologue that feels like it only hits its full emotional stride near its end - this is a man deeply tortured by his role in the deception, and I would like to have seen more of that conflict earlier on.
Similarly, there are hints from the actors playing the villagers of the horrifying truth they're hiding - their subtle reactions to the constant, haunting whistles of trains in the distance, for instance - but it feels like there are missed opportunities to show even more. There are layers on layers on layers here, and it sometimes feels as if the bottom layer is not scratched quite deeply enough.
But ultimately, WJT's Way To Heaven is a solid piece of theatre, reminding us that the human capacity to deceive and be deceived should not be underestimated. And this moving production should not be overlooked.
Joff Schmidt, CBC theatre reviewer (CBC)