Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg
Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg
In Amos Kamil's The Flame Keeper, which occurs shortly after the end of World War II, Dr. Julius Reiter (Lenny Mandel), a Jewish professor, starts going into the cigar shop of Ernst Gruber (Paul Whelihan) every morning to antagonize him. Always with a friendly air, but clearly with subtle revenge in mind, Dr. Reiter annoys Gruber by chattering on endlessly, requesting to see cigars that he has no intention of buying, asking the same questions over and over, and by trying to guilt him about acquiring a store once owned by a Jewish man who has not been seen since the war. This perverse little ritual has been going on for some time, but only the final meeting between these characters is the focus of the play, a meeting which occurs early one morning before Dr. Reiter sets off for Palestine to assist in the development of the new Jewish state.

It's a great premise. What's unfortunate is that The Flame Keeper, which is directed by Charles Goforth, doesn't quite deliver what it seems to promise: An enlightening encounter between the German people and the German-Jewish people in the tense period immediately following the war. In light of the social situation of the time, this should have been a fascinating confrontation in which two men, representing "their people," face-off and rip open not-so-old wounds. But the very unique climate that must have existed in 1946 is almost completely ignored in favor of exploring the pasts of Gruber and Dr. Reiter.

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg
Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg
What we do end up getting is actually quite interesting, but more an engaging conversation than a play. It is clear from the get-go that both characters have a story to tell, and that the proceedings ahead will be dedicated to getting each man to antagonize the story out of the other. Dr. Reiter is reluctant to tell his because he enjoys slowly teasing and irritating Gruber, and Gruber's pride and shame keep him quiet--for awhile. Both men do reveal interesting character traits, even if their secret pasts turn out not to be terribly surprising (indeed, the foreshadowing betrays some of it too soon). They are complex men nevertheless, and, for the most part, defy easy definition.

Without a doubt, intriguing questions are raised in The Flame Keeper, most of them philosophical inquiries into the nature of God, the choices we make when faced with dire circumstances, and the nature of Judaism. For example, when Dr. Reiter persistently invokes the future state of Israel as if it were an answer to every problem that the Jews have ever faced, Gruber finally calls him on it, asking him to describe this "Jewish state." Will it observe dietary laws? Will the Sabbath be observed? Reiter answers that these things aren't necessary in the "modern" age, prompting Gruber to pose perhaps the most important question with regard to the meaning of Judaism: When you separate the Jewish religion from the Jewish ethnicity--in other words, when you take Judaism from the Jew--what do you have left? A Jew, the doctor asserts. But that is a Jew by the Nazi definition, says Gruber.

Such provocative topics help keep the play from slipping into cliché, but that basically leaves the play as a series of neat ideas and arguments and little else, including dramatic action. It's easy to appreciate Gruber and Reiter's respective situations--as a soldier, Gruber experienced the horrors of death all around him; as a Jew, Dr. Reiter experienced the loss of so many of his family and friends. Yet these men of profound ideas and desperate situations rarely feel like men made of flesh and blood. Mandel, as Dr. Reiter, and Whelihan, as Ernst Gruber, both do an adequate job with what they're given, but neither actor ever fully succeeds in bringing his character off the page and to life.

Yet even if playwright Kamil's attempts at poignancy falter, and even if the dramatic tension isn't as palpable as it ought to be, The Flame Keeper is an accomplished character study that is sure to be a springboard for some heated debate on issues of religion, philosophy, ethnicity, and history, both on the stage and off.