Tragedies come in many forms—and this play is nearly Shakespearian in its depiction of innocent, passionate, daring youth braving the Nazis in Germany to try to foment a re-awakening and taking back of their country among the millions of Germans who just tried to survive. It’s a noble effort, if doomed.
This is an intense piece of history brought to vivid life by the cast.
But along the way, we learn things—and not just about the White Rose and the Nazis, but about the fear and apathy among many Germans, and the wholehearted embrace of the hate and killing among others. We learn about bravery when reality sets in—and it’s not pretty and romantic. We learn what heartbreak is, on several levels. And we learn that there is always a reckoning. It is, all in all, an instructive journey, and for the most part, very well done.
The White Rose were a group of Munich university students (from wealthy, healthy, intellectual families) and a professor who began distributing leaflets from June or July 1942 to February 1943, when the leaders were arrested. While they weren’t very well known in Germany at the time of their arrests, by the time the war ended, and after their deaths, they became known and somewhat revered. They had just begun to make contacts with resistance groups in other cities/towns, just as it all came crashing down. None of the groups were particularly successful during the war, but or some such as the White Rose, who had leaflets and pamphlets that laid out their position and tried to instill a sense of fighting back, became somewhat revered.
In this 1991 play by Lillian Garrett-Broag, we follow the roughly eight-month life of the group. Started by brother and sister Hans Scholl (Nicholas Martinez) and Sophie Scholl (Devin Thrasher), along with several friends, and a Professor Huber from their college, the group wrote and distributed leaflets calling for the German people to resist Hitler and Nazism. Since several of the young men in their group were studying to be doctors, they were serving in the army at the time as medics, so had first-hand knowledge of the atrocities being committed against the Jews and other marginalized groups, as well as captured soldiers along the fronts.
There are many moving moments in this production. There are also moments of quiet, intense bravery; when Sophie is asked, in the courtroom at her show trial, why she and her friends would choose to die for their ideals, she simply replies, “Well, somebody had to make a start.” It’s an almost naïve answer, but it challenges people to look beyond themselves and their lives and ask what is worth dying for.
Joe Mariano is especially believable as the police detective turned reluctant SS investigator, Robert Mohr. He and Thrasher joust wonderfully in their interrogation scenes together; he is desperate to save her (he has a daughter about her age) and tries to give her reasons and excuses, but she flummoxes him with her principles. As the tension rises and options narrow, his crisis of conscience grows in tandem. They are nicely calibrated performances.
As the friends who assist the Scholl’s with their efforts to start a grassroots movement, Sam Morton as Alexander Schmorell; Hadlee Walker as Wilheim Graf; and Tyler Heroux as Christopher Probst nobly stand-in for a generation that was lost to war. Using a devil-may-care attitude to mask the horrors they saw as medics and as soldiers, they throw themselves wholeheartedly into this quixotic beau geste.
Rounding out the cast are Matt Leyendecker as Anton Mahler, the second-in-command to Mohr, and Aaron Vonderharr as Bauer. Leyendecker warms to his role as the play progresses, becoming progressively more insolent and intimidating not only toward the prisoners but to Mohr. After the students have been taken to prison to await the guillotine, Mohr is sitting shell-shocked at what has happened and, given the tenor of the times, perhaps unwisely asks Mahler what is the point. Mahler smiles, leans in and says,” People like you are of enormous use to the Reich.” He looks almost beatific at the destruction of his superior.
As Bauer, Vonderharr seems like a blank slate—a seemingly slow-witted attache who is used for driving and muscle and simple tasks. However, this is a character to watch; he takes a stolid part, but you sense something coiled in him, waiting. And it takes you in an unexpected direction.
“The White Rose” is directed by Alex Brady; at times the pacing in the first act drags a little, but the built-in tension in the second act steps up the pace. The costumes are designed by Carrie Brady, and particularly in the men’s clothes, are period-perfect. One caveat—the costumes stayed pristine throughout the show. I wasn’t sure how someone who had been in prison and “interrogated” could stay so clean. The set design and the evocative lighting are by Alex Brady and Tom Gross for the set, and Ernie Morton for lighting.
This is an intense piece of history brought to vivid life by the cast. It also has some timely questions for a world where more governments seem to be leaning toward authoritarianism. And it asks: will you be a Mohr (who at one point muses, “The most we can hope for is to get by. Heroes and. demagogues will always shake things up for a while, but if we’re clever, we’ll still be here when they’re gone.”) or a White Rose.
Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
“The White Rose” runs through November 16, 2019 at The Colonial Players of Annapolis, Annapolis, MD. For more information, please click here.