Monday, May 1, 2017

Applause! Applause! Review of Wolstan W. Brown's Margaret's War at Unitarian Universalist Congregation At Shelter Rock by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Wolstan W. Brown's Margaret's War at Unitarian Universalist Congregation At Shelter Rock was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Margaret's War
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
Reviewed 4/29/17

I attended the world premiere of Wolstan W. Brown's new play Margaret's War, a Holocaust Rescue Drama inspired by the real-life efforts of Marguerite Pohek to help Jews leave Austria in 1939. On March 12, 1938, German troops entered Austria and annexed it in what has been called the Anschluss. This action was overwhelmingly supported by the majority of Austrians. As for Austrian Jews, their support was a little less enthusiastic. In the play, Margaret Polanksi (Karin Lyngstad-Hughes) is a Unitarian Minister and a Professor of Sociology at the University of Philadelphia who has volunteered to work at the Society of Friends Service Committee office in Vienna. She arrives in June 1939 and helps those who wish to leave Austria to get visas to travel elsewhere. It is prior to the commencement of World War II, so Jews are still permitted to travel outside the country so long as they take no more than 500 marks with them. To help Jews without proper documentation, the Society of Friends Service Committee employs official and unofficial procedures, forges documents, helps clients obtain new identities, and in the case of Gail Simmons (Diane Mansell), Margaret's lesbian partner, and professional colleague, even helps a client, Frida Katzenberg (Carol McHugh), hide valuables in her body cavities. Not only is Frida arrested but she turns around and fingers Gail not only for helping her hide the smuggled goods but for also, allegedly, fingering her. Captain Pelhortz (Michael Harrison Carlin), the Nazi bureaucrat in charge knows what the Society of Friends Service Committee is up to and explains to Margaret her friend Gail faces 2 years in prison for aiding and abetting the smuggling and 10 years in prison for sexual abuse. Margaret acts stupid telling Captain Pelhortz she can't understand how adult women could engage in "sexual abuse" with one another. He tries to trade the well-being of her friend Gail for Margaret's "cooperation" in revealing the details of the "services" they provide but Margaret turns the tables on Captain Pelhortz by using a doctored photograph to convince him she and Gail are "good friends" of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The bluff works for the time being and Gail is released.

At this point in 1939, only 37 Jewish men have gone missing and most of those were arrested for speaking against Hitler or against the Anschluss. Gretta Schuler's husband, a High School teacher, was arrested for speaking against Herr Hitler. His arrest left his wife Gretta (Katina Mitchell) and his daughter Bette (Sylvia Mitchell) in a dire financial situation, eventually leading to Gretta abandoning her daughter at the office of the Society of Friends Service Committee. Lesbian partners and unmarried women are not permitted to adopt children in America so Margaret and her supervisor Oscar Smith (Robert Nuxoll) engage in a forgery flurry to allow Margaret to take Bette to America as a tourist but with the true intention of bringing her up as her own child. Of course, Gail objects that Margaret made such a life-changing decision without even consulting her but when Margaret makes it clear she is not putting Bette up for adoption, Gail is forced to accept the circumstances. They seem pleased to imagine they may wake up in the morning discovering Bette sleeping in their bed with them. Despite the fact that they took Bette out of Austria without the required permission of her father, they pledge to Bette they will never give her up even if her parents show up and want her back. Sounds like child abduction and human trafficking to me but it appears all felonies, forgeries, and falsifications can be forgiven so long as everything is done in service of a good cause. Michael Harrison Carlin doubled as Peter Reilly, Hank Arond was the American Immigration Inspector, and Gerald Matusiewicz played the Nazi Guard. 

Suzanne Viverito was the Director of Margaret's War. My introduction to her was when I observed her yelling at Wolstan W. Brown, the playwright, and producer, for letting audience members into the Worship Room ten minutes earlier than she would have liked. Everyone felt quite uncomfortable witnessing this unprofessional outburst. Ms. Viverito told Mr. Brown that if he ever has another play produced here that he is not to let anyone in until she says so. Staff offered to ask the audience members to leave but she then revealed that everything was set up anyway and there was no need to ask anyone to get up out of their seats. So what was the point of the tirade other than for her to assert power and control over a fellow human being. As for her directorial decisions, I think Ms. Viverito could have made better use of video clips to provide more atmosphere and historical grounding for this play. As for the cast, they were far from seasoned professionals and there were many missed lines but overall, the play was well-served by their performances. The play was performed in two acts and there was a fine display of free food (i.e. cookies, fruit) for audience members to nibble on during intermission. The main point of the play can be summed up in the following statement Gail Simmons said to Margaret Polanski, "You didn't get everyone but you did get one!" Net proceeds from the two performances of Margaret's War were donated to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

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