Review: In ‘All Our Children,’ Moral Authority Wades Into Nazi Germany
They seem like nice people, Victor the doctor and Martha the maid, chatting away companionably in his comfortable office at the clinic.
It’s bitter winter in Winkelheim, Germany, and wartime has made coffee a luxury. But behind his desk Victor sips a precious morning cup, and while Martha tidies the room he asks after her son, whose chest cold is lingering.
“You should take him to a doctor,” Victor says. “Not me, obviously.”
No, not him, and certainly not here, where the young patients — so called — are intended to be killed.
Directed by Ethan McSweeny in a powerfully performed production at the Sheen Center, Stephen Unwin’s historical drama “All Our Children” takes place in 1941, as the Nazis are quietly exterminating thousands of children. The state has deemed them “unworthy of life” because they have Down syndrome or cerebral palsy or any number of other conditions.
Victor (Karl Kenzler), the clinic director, is a cog in the killing machine. This evening, though, he’s expecting a visitor who will challenge that complicity: the Roman Catholic Bishop von Galen. The play’s sole character based on a real person, he is portrayed by John Glover with an iron-fist, velvet-glove moral authority. Strikingly sane in a society that has lost its collective mind, he arrives in the play’s second half, eminently worth waiting for.
Before then, Victor will wade through a day that requires vigilant compartmentalization — the price of having a conscience without the courage to follow it. With so many misgivings to shove aside, the wrong that he’s doing is exhausting; just look at the towers of file cabinets pushed up against the walls. (The set is by Lee Savage.)
One of those files belongs to the son of Frau Pabst (a wrenching Tasha Lawrence), a widow who begs Martha (Jennifer Dundas) to get her an audience with Victor. When Frau Pabst arrives — toting a loaf of stollen for him and a tin of cookies for Stefan, her treasured boy — her trust in the doctor is clear.
He, on the other hand, doesn’t know which patient Stefan is, or maybe was. Perhaps he’s among those who have been murdered. Victor fakes his way through the encounter with a veneer of condescending courtesy.
That’s the sort of propriety that Eric (Sam Lilja), the gung-ho young Nazi who is the clinic’s deputy director, doesn’t bother with. He has a cold, single-minded fanaticism for the Führer, and you could spot him as a bad guy a mile away.
The villainy Mr. Unwin is more interested in, though, is the reluctant evil perpetrated by people who think of themselves as good — and those who don’t resist when a supposedly civilized state commits evil in their name.
Toward the end, “All Our Children” loses its vital restraint and teeters into luridness, but until then it makes compelling, conventional drama. This is a play about the care that people, and nations, owe to the weakest among them. It is, at its core, about the sanctity of life. And while that may sound rooted in religion, the idea is far more basic.
“This has nothing to do with being a Christian,” the bishop says. “It’s about being a human being.”