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Theater Review: "The White Rose"

The overwhelming power of historical fact causes
"The White Rose" to fall slightly short of expectations

(c) Los Angeles Times

January 19, 1991

By Sylvie Drake

SAN DIEGO — Passionate responses elicit passionate responses.

Actor/director/playwright Lillian Garrett wrote "The White Rose" because the true story of a group of Munich university students who had the audacity to resist Adolf Hitler at the height of World War II struck her as a rare instance of undiluted courage.

Young Germans daring to protest Nazism? This brave defiance of the existing order generated the same kind of fearful admiration--and retaliation--as did more recent events in Tian An Men Square. Nothing changes.

In her play, which opened Thursday at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park, Garrett, appropriately, has gone after the universal truth of the facts rather than historical detail. Underwritten by AT&T: OnStage as part of its "New Plays for the Nineties" project, "The White Rose" is a committed piece of writing, vivified by Craig Noel's hard-hitting direction and some ardent performances.

In 1943, a group of students, operating in secret and calling themselves the White Rose, perpetrated various acts of dissent, including the printing and dissemination of anti-Nazi pamphlets. Five of the students were arrested and eventually executed.

For her play, done as a series of flashbacks alternating with interrogations in the office of a "reasonable" Gestapo chief, Garrett focuses on the five and speeds up the executions. Ralph Funicello's vaulting set, a massive, all-purpose mausoleum with stairways and catwalks, backed by a giant swastika, marks time by projecting the passing dates at the top of the proscenium: Day 1 through Day 5.

Garrett zeros in on the inter-relationship of three of the students: brother-and-sister Hans and Sophie Scholl (John K. Linton and Natalija Nogulich, respectively) and their friend, Alexander Schmorell (Steven Culp). She concentrates on the interaction between Sophie and her interrogator, Robert Mohr, played with world-weary simplicity and finesse by the Old Globe's splendid actor-for-all-seasons, Jonathan McMurtry.

Arrests and executions are telescoped into five emotionally charged days, during which we are exposed to the torment within Mohr's soul as pressures mount for him to make arrests. His Nazi goad is one Anton Mahler (an intense J. Kenneth Campbell). The students, in particular Sophie, weather the onslaught on a psychological roller coaster that takes them from resolve to defiance and the edge of collapse, regaining their constancy of purpose in the face of death.

To her credit, Garrett does not create cardboard villains or heroes. These are thinking and feeling individuals. The play eventually narrows up to a battle of philosophies between Mohr and Sophie, whom he betrays more deeply for having wanted to save her.

If "The White Rose" does not entirely elude didacticism--almost a given in plays of such heroic proportions, especially those with a predetermined outcome--it is not for lack of trying. Being an actor, Garrett has a real flair for the dramatic, writes strong, impassioned speeches that explore compelling issues. She writes about something, but like others before her, can still be upstaged by the subject of her story. When life is so thunderously dramatic, it tends to steal theater's thunder, rather like two pluses making a minus.

Not that "The White Rose" is a minus. It just isn't as absorbing as one might wish, despite some real achievement at keeping things human rather than propagandistic.

The "White Rose" movement has been written about in books, dramatized on film and documentary. The Long Beach Opera produced Udo Zimmermann's opera about it in 1988 ("White Rose"), a production that inspired Garrett to write her play. But, like all interrogation and/or courtroom plays, it is creatively hemmed in by the formula. You love it or you don't, but it's dramaturgically limiting.

Aside from the tenebrous mass of Funicello's set, Noel's precise direction encases the play in suggestiveness: explosions, dark recesses, pools of white light (designed by David F. Segal) and the amplified sound of slamming prison doors. But also the sound of birds heralding spring and the recurrence of Beethoven's 9th--something of a joyously defiant theme.

No excess here. Or anywhere. If "The White Rose" falls slightly short of expectation, if it fails to engage our feelings as much as our minds, it is due only to the overwhelming power of its historical fact. Art can't quite top that.

"The White Rose," Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; matinees Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Feb. 24. $17-$28.50; (619) 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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