Taproot Theatre has always been a company with not only a heart, but a soul. Their play selection always tries to find work that is not only entertaining, but meaningful. Though not evangelical, this is a theater that believes that true faith is at the core of meaning, and they are ever willing to produce plays that illuminate the search for certainty in a world of doubt, for faith in the face of disillusionment, for spiritual conviction against the questions and challenges of the contemporary world.
In presenting Douglas Anderson's “The Beams Are Creaking” they have chosen a biographical drama where all of those often abstract values are set against the reality of the greatest evil of the Twentieth Century. An intellectual conflict set in the lethal world of war and politics, it is an essay on what one man believes, on what belief requires in action, and of how faith and love can endure against hardship and even mortal threat.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a privileged young man, a respected German theologian who found himself distressed by the fractious disunity of the Christian Church and deeply aware that the rise of Nazism represented a challenge to not only the integrity of the church, but to the very core of its belief, to its very soul. Opposed to Hitler from his earliest rise to power, Bonhoeffer was highly public and influential in his statements against the Nazi's demonization of the Jews and the political takeover of the churches. He knew that the move to put Hitler at the head of the church, rather than Christ, was more than incorrect. It was heretical and disastrous. As the Reich grew more oppressive and ominous, Bonhoeffer was also involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and as a result of that he was imprisoned for nearly two years and ultimately executed. He was killed barely a month before the fall of Germany.
For this drama to work it must be set at least as much within the character of Bonhoeffer as within Germany, and the depth of the external drama will be exactly the depth of his internal conflict. Matt Shimkus plays Bonhoeffer as a very likable, intelligent and talented young man. He wears his ideas very comfortably. A trip to America leaves him unsettled by the factionalism of the church but deeply moved by his discovery of the “Negro” faith, from its moving spirituals to its strength and unity in the face of oppression and poverty. When he returns to Germany he immediately sees the parallels and commits to social justice, to a “Confessing Church” in opposition to the Nazis and in opposition to the “German Christians” assembling beneath the cross and the swastika.
What seemed lacking to me in Mr. Shimkus' performance was a sobriety, a gravitas that could make his opposition feel more like a true moral imperative, a calling beyond a political position, belief beyond rationalism. As the circumstances become ever more dangerous and the cost to Bonhoeffer ever greater, I did not feel Bonhoeffer becoming ever more substantial. In part, that is because Karen Lund's direction didn't quite get the urgency, the sense of real mortal danger as Bonhoeffer and his colleagues are drawn into a maelstrom of conspiracy to murder the Fuhrer. She is much more successful at creating the relationships in his life and making it clear why he meant so much to each of them.
I thought Sarah Ware did a fine job of creating Maria, the woman Dietrich loves and whom he marries only three months before his arrest. I especially appreciated the way she played a woman in love with a man she is never really able to be with, but to whom she is profoundly connected both emotionally and spiritually. That distance between the man in the cell and her, like the distance between her and the inner life of the man, felt deeply authentic. When she visits him in his prison cell it is a surprisingly sweet inclusion of her in his truly cloistered world, and his attempts to make it presentable, to insure that even in his crude prision there is order and substance, felt both true and moving.
The other standout in this well-balanced cast was Robert Gallaher as Corporal Knobloch, a low-level prison guard who is both a great admirer of Bonhoeffer and a genuinely decent man. His humorous acceptance of his lowly place in the vast German hierarchy made his personal acts of courage and decency, of respect and character, neatly parallel the much broader and more public struggle of his prisoner. What we do is the true measure of who we are. Our actions are the description of our beliefs. Faith is our proximity to truth. Those are the rather simple but profound scales on which both of these men's lives are weighed.
This is a quite solid production of a rather too didactic play. The accuracy of the biography, the discourse Bonhoeffer left in his writings and papers, the exposition of most of the arguments in the drama was simply too literal, too verbal, not sufficiently embodied to be theatrically engaging. Because the world outside his home and later, his cell, was never quite real enough it was difficult to make that external pressure, that dangerous and murderous world, correspond with his internal moral and spiritual conflict.
“The Beams Are Creaking” refers to a code message sent between the conspirators that the time is right for an assault on Hitler. This production could have used much more of that foreboding, that sense of tension and lethal risk, as well as a stronger sense that the entire foundation of this house, this house of Germany, of God, of personal faith, is at a critical juncture where a man must either be his beliefs or have them taken away from him. This production offers us an open hand, but it does not hold us in its grip.
PICTURED ABOVE: Gerald B. Browning, Don Brady, and Matt Shimkus.
PHOTO BY: Erik Stuhaug.