Produced by the Hypothetical Theatre Company (yes, they really exist), this is the New York premiere of Michael McKeever's play set in Nuremberg, Germany, during the autumn of 1938. As the action begins, Hannah List, a respected citizen and apparent matron of the SA and SS, observes a fireworks display with childlike wonder. She is attended by Herr Kubizek, her loyal manservant, played with an abundance of Germanic gruffness by Ryan Hilliard. The simple elegance of this scene, staged on a likewise simple and elegant set designed by Mark Symczak, is followed by what at first seems to be the setup of the play's central conflict. However, it isn't until the end of Act One that the audience becomes privy to Hannah's secret.
The second scene of the first act introduces us to Hannah's two children and their significant others. Hannah's son, Oscar (Antony Hagopian) and her son-in-law, Rudy (David Fitzgerald) become embroiled in a political debate that assumes the form of a drawn-out history lesson. Oscar decries the evils of the Third Reich; Rudy, with glib detachment, admits that while he doesn't particularly care for the Nazis, they are having a positive effect on the nation's morale. Oscar's fiancée, Karma (Kimberly Kay), flits about flirtatiously while Hannah's sullen daughter, Lottie (Kendra Bahneman), serves as the group's overarching moral conscience, assuming the psychological brunt of the conflict. Periodically, she urges her husband and brother to cease their squabbling. In large part, the play becomes an experiment with rhetoric-in-motion, for it remains largely unclear--both on the level of the script and the performance--what kind of personal investments the characters have in each other.
It is the martyrdom of Hannah List that lends this work its spine. In a scene at the end of Act One that will be echoed in the final moments of the play, Hannah warmly invites a young, starry-eyed SA officer who is seeking donations into her home, her garden. She bids Herr Kubizek to fetch her purse, then she delivers a compelling monologue recounting the brutal beating of a young neighbor, confiding to the officer that he looks just like the young Jewish boy who was kicked to death. By the end of this monologue, Hannah has opened her purse, and we are shocked when she retrieves from it...but should I deprive a potential audience member of the surprise element?
Though Jones plays Hannah with consistent poise and honest emotion, the supporting cast of this production does not do her justice. To director Henry Fonte's credit, the actors do look their parts. Most, however, fail to breathe humanity into their roles. Hagopian rants throughout the show, his performance riddled with exaggerated facial expressions and gestures. Fitzgerald's Rudy drips with a detestable smugness that is so over the top, it becomes a challenge for the audience even to love to hate this cocky cad.
As the neurotic, ambitious actress Karma, Kay evidences fine control and timing; she only occasionally visits Cartoonland, where so many of the production's male performers seem to dwell. There is in Kay's charming, fluid portrayal a self-possession which suggests that Karma is an actress who knows she's always on stage. Bahneman, as Lottie, affects a passive melancholia through most of the play. This choice is somewhat justified, as the girl is constantly being fed sedatives. The script suggests, however, that her loves and hates run deeper than those of the other characters; and because Bahneman delivers too little, too late, it isn't until the end of the play that we begin to catch a glimpse of Lottie's passions. Though a refreshing alternative to the mugging of the men, this performance makes it difficult to gauge the character's stake in the action.
To some extent, the actors may be responding to a script that is largely devoid of clear conflict and character motivation. In the final analysis, The Garden of Hannah List succumbs to the dangers of treating the charged subject of Nazism didactically, often falling into sentimentality and cliché. McKeever does comically relieve the audience on occasion, by way of dry quips from the cynical Rudy (e.g., "Hannah, you're using the Third Reich as fertilizer"). But Rudy is gone for most of Act Two.
The tragedy of Hannah List is that her relationship with her children is destroyed for the sake of a higher commitment. The tragedy of this production is that a talented leading lady has been thwarted by a heavy-handed script, and by mediocre performances from her fellow actors.