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|Timeless Holocaust Courtroom Drama at Santa Monica Playhouse|
By Melonie Magruder
March 11, 2011 -- In an era when daily headlines seem rife with international news of crimes against humanity, West of Broadway is presenting a dramatization of the moral dilemmas faced by society in the aftermath of bloody state conflict with its production of Abby Mann’s “Judgment at Nuremberg.”
The play will run from March 11 through April 3 at the Santa Monica Playhouse and stars Drake Hogestyn and Katherine Ross, still familiar for her role opposite Dustin Hoffman in the iconic 60's film “The Graduate.”
The award-winning courtroom drama is a fictionalized account of the Allies’ post-World War II military tribunals held in Nuremberg, Germany that brought to light the full horror of the genocide committed by the Nazis during the war.
When Mann adapted his work into a screenplay for socially conscious Stanley Kramer to direct in 1961, the film, among the first from Hollywood about the Holocaust, went on to win a number of Academy Awards.
Director Dianne Namm of West of Broadway saw “Nuremberg” as a natural next step in her “You, the Jury™” series of courtroom dramas designed to prod audiences into taking a more interactive – and, therefore, more invested role - in deciding the nature of guilt or innocence.
She has already staged Walter Dean Myers’ “Monster,” the story of a robbery-gone-bad; as well as a production based on Reginald Rose’s classic “Twelve Angry Men.”
“The reason I chose to do this show now is because the economic conditions in Germany of the 30s that led to the rise of ultra-nationalism are very much reflected in our own economic situation of today,” Namm said. “And how we balance the moral demand of civil rights versus political manipulation to accomplish something politically is faced by every advanced country in the world. Do you do what’s right or do you follow the law?”
Namm has cast a full slate of seasoned actors to present “Nuremberg,” starting with Drake Hogestyn in the pivotal role of Ernst Janning, the German judge whose decision to convict a Jewish man for an illegal relationship with an “Aryan” woman helped launch the Nazi genocide.
Hogestyn played on a farm team for the New York Yankees until an injury ended his professional baseball career and he turned to television. He worked on “Days of Our Lives” for 23 years and joked that “Nuremberg” is only his second stage production in all that time.
“But I think that daytime television is pretty close to stage work in that you go from start to finish with a story,” Hogestyn said. “It allows for a character development within the story that you have to achieve in the hour and 45 minutes you are on stage.”
Hogestyn said he searched for a way to justify Janning’s callous actions to find the humanity within the man.
“This is a guy who loved his country and thought he was doing something for the greater good,” Hogestyn explained. “He didn’t know the country would go where it did. Effectively, he was just a cog and a man trying to do what he could to help his country.”
Also in the cast is veteran actress Katharine Ross, playing the wife of a German general who also must find a way to rationalize what, in another context, is merciless.
“My character is German nobility as well as a military wife,” Ross explained. “In this circumstance, there is pride in military bearing as well as pride of country. You take your orders; you were brought up to do one thing without considering a bigger picture.”
Ross said that her character’s excuse for the willful blindness on the part of many in Weimar Germany created a snowballing effect of atrocity.
“My character says, ‘What can we do? We’re just little people,” Ross said. “But it’s that kind of thinking that allows government to supercede the good of its citizens. People choose not to vote and think it doesn’t matter because it’s just one voice. We have to stand up to make sure these things don’t happen again.”
Namm echoed Ross’ note of caution.
“The National Socialist Movement took advantage of citizens’ pride of country and history,” Namm said. “When patriotic fever sweeps a nation, denial can be a strong emotion and it becomes not about country or ideology, but about petty people who want to be powerful. They lose all perspective.”
Namm said that the strength of her cast allows her to bring an emotional exhilaration to the project, within an intimate setting that treats the audience as if they are part of the jury. Ross and Hogestyn laid responsibility for that dynamic at their director’s feet.
“When you have really good material, you can mine it,” Ross said. “And Diane really draws deep stuff out. You teeter on the edge.”
Namm hopes that the power of the story and its moral complexity not only challenge audiences, but spurs them to develop an emotional connection.
“There’s an implicit personal responsibility,” Namm said. “The audiences will ask themselves, ‘Would I have done that?’ How they answer is what makes this a timeless play.”
“Judgment at Nuremberg” runs March 11 through April 3 at the Santa Monica Playhouse. Tickets may be purchased through the box office at (424) 234-9962 or by visiting the website www.westofbroadway.org
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