“Sheltered,” like “The Children” currently playing in Annapolis, asks some very important questions regarding what do we as a society owe to the next generation? This play goes a step further—these are immigrant children or would-be immigrant children. They are strangers–the other.
This is a compelling drama that gets into your mind and heart, and is definitely a must-see.
Evelyn (Erin Weaver) and Leonard Kirsch (David Schlumpf) are two upper-middle-class Jewish Americans living a secular life in Providence in 1939. But they are very aware of the changes sweeping Europe and make an extraordinary decision that they have a responsibility to help Jewish children in Austria. Leonard works with agencies in Washington, DC, and manages to secure 40 visas; all that’s needed are families willing to sponsor a child. They need one more signature and invite old friends, now estranged, to dinner to persuade them to become the 40th signatory. But in the second act, which takes place in a hotel room in the capital of Austria, they meet one of the mothers who has applied to send her child to safety and who is now questioning that decision; and that will cause the Kirsch’s to question their quixotic quest as well.
One thing the show does extremely well is giving a sense of what it was like to hear the rumors and stories coming out of Europe and weighing that against the official reports coming from various governments, including the United States. Many places refused visas to Jews and others trying to escape, and many Americans felt that perhaps the Europeans were just overreacting and things would calm down. In hindsight the horrible danger these millions of people faced is clear; it was not so clear to people basically living in safety on another continent and getting news that was often filtered through “channels.” And many people couldn’t believe that another war would start, not so soon after World War I. Through the disbelief and dismissal of the other couple—Roberta and Martin Bloom—the Kirsch’s are forced to test their commitment and convince the Bloom’s to take in a stranger’s child.
As the Blooms (Martin Bloom makes a point of stating several times that they are no longer Bloombergs) begin to understand the reason for this little dinner party, the reasons for the estrangement also become clear. Kimberly Gilbert (Roberta Bloom) gives an aching performance of a woman casually dismissed by her husband as a child and at the same time his victim. In spite of the somewhat clunky speech when she demands of Evelyn Kirsch what is she supposed to do, Gilbert makes it clear that she is a survivor as well as a victim, and an exceptionally clear-eyed one at that.
Anyway, without her, Evelyn and Leonard would never have gotten their 40th signature. She’s aware she’s being used, but she’ll also do the right thing.
McLean Fletcher, as Hani Mueller, the mother in Austria, doesn’t appear until the second act, but when she does appear, it’s as a force of nature. Her fear and conflicted feelings about sending her child away are palpable, and she doesn’t pull any punches about how much this is an act of faith. She’s compelling.
David Schlumpf and Erin Weaver are well-matched as the intellectual, caring Kirsches, who, before they leave Austria with the 40 children, will have that smug hint of swooping in as the savior knocked out of them. You watch them grow up into a bigger world and a realization that all their blessings (healthy children, a nice home, a good job for Leonard, a new Cadillac) are fragile paper boats in a much bigger sea. Even as these two rail at each other and support each other, you sense a deep bond, and it’s that commitment that makes their decision to take such a risk so believable.
Adam Immerwahr directs; the pacing of the first act is a little stately at first, but really comes alive when the men go offstage to look at the new car, and the kids gloves come off with the women. And that underscores an interesting insight—in many ways, the whole success of this rescue operation (small in the amount, a mere 40, but huge to the 40 children saved) hinges on the women; if it wasn’t for the women, it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. To paraphrase Evelyn, men might have the idea, but it’s up to the women to make it work.
Scenic designer Paige Hathaway recreates an upscale 1930s house beautifully, and then deftly switches out wall sconces and furniture at intermission to recreate a hotel suite in Austria—a little fussier and musty. Kelsey Hunt nails it in the costumes—the ladylike shoes with covered toes, the draping of the evening dresses, the day suits, even the slight slouchiness of the men’s suits; and of course everyone has hats and gloves and lovely overcoats.
This is a play that reverberates today—would people really flee their homes, their countries if they weren’t really terrified those children would die? While the first act is more guarded, the reality of making such a choice in the second act brings to the fore even more compellingly how easy it is to judge when you don’t have to worry about facing such a reality. This is a compelling drama that gets into your mind and heart and is definitely a must-see.
Advisory: Some strong language, strobe lights, explosions.
Running Time: Ninety-five minutes with no intermission.
“Sheltered” runs through February 2, 2020, at Theater J, Washington, DC. For more information, click here.