This review of Wolstan W. Brown's Margaret's War at Unitarian Universalist Congregation At Shelter Rock was written by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written by Wolstan W. Brown
Directed by Suzanne Viverito
The Shelter Rock Players of UUCSR
Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock
48 Shelter Rock Road
Manhasset, New York 11030
Margaret's War is a new play by Wolstan W. Brown, a promising new playwright who has gone from having his plays being given Table Readings at The Northport Players to having one performed by the Shelter Rock Players of UUCSR. Having only started his writing career after retirement, the author is to be congratulated for writing a play that envelopes the audience. As the play progresses the audience becomes more interested in the outcome and there is a happy denouement but in an unexpected way. The action of the play speeds up in the five-month period that is examined in the life of Margaret Polanski, a member of the UUCSR, between June and October 1939 as World War II approached and broke out.
Although the Nazi bureaucracy's intention of persecuting and expelling the Jews is depicted, the American bureaucracy is let off too easily. There is mention of the possible passage of a bill that would have allowed more Jewish Children to obtain visas to come to the United States in excess of existing immigration quotas but that bill did not pass in time to do any good. As the scholarship of Arthur D. Morse in "While Six Million Died" and the research of Jerald Auerbach demonstrates, "Roosevelt's anti-Semitism did not cause the Holocaust. But his indifference to the annihilation of European Jewry contributed to its horrific consequences." The United States State Department was a stronghold of anti-Semitism which erected a paper blockade so the existing quotas for immigration from Germany and Austria were actually underused in the Holocaust era.
Margaret Polanski, played ably by Karin Lyngstad-Hughes, arrived in Vienna to volunteer to help at the Society of Friends Service Committee. She is counseled by Oscar Smith, a wise and experienced professional, played most effectively by Robert Nuxoll. Margaret must follow bureaucratic procedures very carefully in order to do good without giving the Nazis an excuse to arrest or expel her. Margaret is a quick learner. She handles the case of Gretta Schuler and her daughter Bette, portrayed well by Katina Mitchell and Sylvia Mitchell, respectively, in a sensitive, calm, and humane manner as they seek to obtain visas to leave the country. It is mentioned her husband has been arrested and placed in the Dachau Concentration Camp. However, this is most unlikely. Dachau was located in Bavaria near Munich. He was probably being held in a local concentration camp near Vienna. Margaret explained the child may have to obtain parental permission to go to the USA by herself in the hopeful event Congress passes the bill currently being held up in committee. Although the mother is most reluctant to give this permission, she gives into the inevitability as her family's situation worsens.
Margaret is joined in Vienna by Gail Simmons (played by Diane Mansell), her friend and colleague from the University of Philadelphia (it should have been called Philadelphia University). They are happy to see each other. Her friend gave the excuse for the visit being that she was unable to contact her by telephone. But it is unlikely Gail would empty their joint savings account on such a flimsy excuse. It is later revealed Gail is on assignment to write a journalistic article on the reaction of local Austrians to the Anschluss. She expresses her complete lack of fear of Nazis and ignores Margaret's instructions not to open the door of the Society of Friends Service Committee while Margaret, Oscar, and Peter Reilly (Oscar's Assistant) are out to lunch but Gail ignores the advice and is arrested by the Nazis after she tries to help Frida Katzenberg (played by Carol McHugh) smuggle jewelry out the country hidden in her private parts. Not only does Frau Katzenberg give Gail up to the Nazis but she also makes the accusation that Gail touched her inappropriately. Margaret is able to rescue her friend by bluffing the Nazi Captain Pelhortz, convincingly portrayed by Michael H. Carlin, and the Guard, Gerry Matusiewicz, by falsely claiming she and Gail are close friends of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She produces a photograph as proof.
Mrs. Schuler abandons her child Bette outside the door of the Society of Friends Service Committee and Margaret steps forward to take personal responsibility for the care of the child. She eventually takes her to the United States where she will raise her as her own daughter. Margaret convinces Oscar Smith, the manager, to help her forge the papers necessary to accomplish this task. Back then, it was quite bold of her to step forward as a single lady to take responsibility for an abandoned child and to be permitted to more or less adopt her.
It is at this point that we see Margaret's transformation from loving humanity in the abstract to loving a single human being, Bette, in the concrete. Margaret's War in the title implies not only a war with the bureaucracy but with her own nature and even with the relationship with her friend Gail Simmons, who turns out to be her partner. Margaret makes it clear her continued relationship with Gail is contingent on her accepting Bette as their new child, and that continued objection by Gail will result in Margaret leaving with Bette. Margaret is able to win over Gail and to convince Bette to accept the new status quo. The unexpected development is that Margaret and Gail are lesbians informally adopting a child. Had this play been written and performed in 1990, when real life Margaret died, this would have been quite controversial. However, it is a sign of our society's advancement that this is no big deal today.
The costume design by Diane Mansell and Jo Rymer helps us travel back in time to 1939. The lighting, music and set design are simple but effective in staging the various scenes. Some live music by Barry Nobel on piano and Hank Arond on violin put us in the mood in advance of the show. Suzanne Viverito, the director, is to be congratulated for taking full advantage of the script and enabling the actors to give such good performances. The play gives us insight into the life of Margaret Polanski (Marguerite Pohek - 1904-1990), who rose to the occasion to become a true humanitarian instead of a mere do-gooder. I felt the standout performance of Karin Lyngstad-Hughes as Margaret Polanski was the linchpin that held everything together.
Margaret's War is a well-done drama definitely worth seeing. It was a delightful surprise to have refreshments served during intermission. In addition, the net proceeds from the show were donated to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.