Watch on the Rhine as Relevant as Ever

Activist playwright Lillian Hellman’s 1940s play rings true today.


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Photo courtesy Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Screenwriter Lillian Hellman was known for her successful Broadway writing and her left-wing sympathies—which eventually got her blacklisted from Hollywood during the 1950s McCarthy era Red Scare. But long before that, Hellman was sounding the alarm about the dangers of rising fascism in Europe, not the least of which was her gripping and intense play Watch on the Rhine, which brought the threat of Nazi activity home for American audiences.

Taking place in 1940, Watch on the Rhine follows the story of German engineer Kurt Muller and his American wife, Sara, as they visit Sara’s wealthy mother, Fanny Farrelly, in Washington, D.C. Unbeknown to Sara’s politically naïve mother, Kurt was an active anti-fascist activist back in Germany opposing the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party. But also living in Fanny’s house is a shady expatriate Romanian count, and this houseguest, a Nazi sympathizer, is secretly in league with Kurt’s old nemesis. The count is willing to blackmail the Mullers for everything they know and love in this suspense-riddled tale and call for activism.

Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine is an urgent warning about the dehumanizing effects of fascism, a message more prescient now than ever. It is also a meditation on the limits of family bonds as the Farrellys must come to grips with how far they’re willing to go—and how much they’re willing to sacrifice—to protect the people they love and uphold the ideals they cherish.

 

Through Jan. 14. Saturdays 2 p.m., 8 p.m.; Sundays 2 p.m., 7 p.m.; Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays 8 p.m.; Wednesdays 7 p.m. $45-$97. Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. BerkeleyRep.org.

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