The Action Against Sol Schumann
by Jeffrey Sweet
November 28th - 30th, 2002
The Tower Theatre performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury
*** British Première ***
In-house review by Richard Pedersen
Richard Pedersen is a Tower member of several year's standing whose presence at productions is now likely to arouse the suspicions of a cast as to whether or not he's doing the review.
Penny Tuerk's production of the Jeffrey Sweet play The Action Against Sol Schumann was a little gem nestling amid the crowded autumn schedule at the Tower. With only four performances over three days, I imagine that not too many regular members will have managed to see it, which is a great shame.
I should maybe start with an expression of interest; my great-uncle Joe drove a Red Cross truck which was the first to arrive after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in 1945. I have also been close friends with a Polish woman who spent the Second World War in a forced labour camp in Goslar. But I'm not Jewish, and I'm afraid the whole "holocaust industry" leaves me somewhat dispassionate.
Which brings us back to the play. Set in the USA in 1985, the play dealt with people for whom the early 1940s was like yesterday, and with others who, although not having lived through the Second World War, still laboured under its shadow. To the dramatist's credit he also showed us people who had moved on and wanted to put the past behind them. The conflict between the two principles was the nub of the play.
Sol Schumann, himself, played with quiet dignity by Robert Pennant-Jones was, ironically, not the centre of the play. He was the catalyst for the action but remained something of a cipher. The play's chief interest was with his two sons; Aaron, a New York supply teacher and Michael, an accountant.
Stephen Brown was excellent casting as Aaron, ultra-conscious of his Jewishness to the extent of always wearing a yarmulke. His part exhibited flashes of dry humour which lightened an otherwise rather relentless drama.
I couldn't agree with many of his views and found it hard to empathise with his hysterical reaction to the visit by Ronald Reagan to the German war cemetery in Bitburg, but I wanted him to be happy. His sudden death, beautifully described by Sophie Talbot as Diane Abbott, came as a terrible shock.
Aaron was murdered, trying to do what was right, and what came over from this production was how, in their own way everyone else was also trying to do what was "right". But right for one person is not right for another. In his mind, Israel Frieder, one of many parts expertly played by the ubiquitous John Edmunds, was also doing the "right thing" when he reported Sol to the authorities and then, when unsuccessful in having him deported, tried to murder him.
Was it coincidental, or just my fancy, that the final, rather melodramatic, scene where Michael, competently played by John McSpadyen, prevented Frieder from killing Sol, was set on a slip road of the Long Island Expressway, known to New Yorkers as the LIE. Sol had been living a lie since his arrival in the USA in the late 1940s; that lie about his activities as a "kapo" in a south German concentration camp was about to see him prosecuted and deported.
His nemesis was Paula Fontana from the Office of Special Investigations, played by Meryl Griffiths. I thought it a shame that her character was not given enough room to properly develop, but many of her clearly delivered lines hit the nerve. Was she the playwright's voice when berating one of the Jewish characters for trying to have a monopoly on moral rectitude? In 2002 her words had added resonance. The acting generally was pretty faultless, give or take the odd slippage into an English intonation. I found it interesting that the director had her actors speak their "narration" lines with an English accent rather than American one; it was slightly disconcerting at first, but I soon got used to it. I should give a special mention to the three new members of the cast in their first full Tower production.
Amanda Morgan, who co-directed the Youth Theatre's last production in September, was utterly believable as Michael's Gentile wife Kate, as were Sophie Talbot as the journalist Diane and Lucy Macmillan as the lawyer Leah. These were sterling performances and I look forward to seeing them on stage again soon.
Among the more experienced cast members, Annie Connell gave a particularly convincing performance (among several in the play) as Rivka Glauer, an old friend of Sol now living in Toronto. Here, as with so many other characters, you appreciated the moral dilemmas eating them up - what was right? what was wrong ? There was never any easy answer.
The set by Steven Hyndman suited the action well, particularly with the raised area at the back. You needed an uncluttered set for the multitude of scenes, and it was right that the cast, rather than ASMs, should do the furniture shifting. My only criticism was the stage area supposed to represent Michael and Kate's apartment, where the actors seemed unnecessarily constrained by a rather awkward stage left entrance. It was about the only point in the play where I was unable to imagine the actual setting of a scene. It looked like a number of Tower actors squeezed into too small a space.
Because the same set had to represent a large number of locations I was impressed by the background noises used which cleverly indicated where we were supposed to be - at an airport, in a park, in the World Trade Centre etc.
To conclude, this was a highly rewarding production of an interesting and worthwhile play. I note that, although the play is only a year old, it is already being used as a tool for academic courses on the Shoah. It was also a contender for best new American play of 2001. Congratulations to our Artistic Director for obtaining the British premiership rights, and to Penny Tuerk and her cast and crew for a highly enjoyable and thought provoking afternoon.