Who’ll Stop the Rhine?

Elijah Alexander's performance in Berkeley Rep's production of Lillian Hellman's play brings to mind the image of those violently unresolved triptychs by the painter Francis Bacon

(front row, l to r) Jonah Horowitz (Bodo Muller), Emma Curtin (Babette Muller), and Elijah Alexander (Kurt Muller); (back row, l to r) Sarah Agnew (Sara Muller) and Silas Sellnow (Joshua Muller) in Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine at Berkeley Rep. (Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

On a 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett asks Bette Davis if playing Sara Muller in Watch on the Rhine (1943) was one of her favorite roles. Davis replies matter-of-factly, “No, it was not ever my favorite favorite part. Except for one speech.” The host then plays the film clip with that one speech, “I don’t like to be alone at night. I guess everybody in the world’s got a time they don’t like. Me, it’s right before I go to sleep. Now it’s going to be for always.” When the clip ends and the camera cuts back to the set, Davis has teared up.

The actress doesn’t explain if she’s crying from a place of profound nostalgia or if the performance itself stirs up her emotions. As an ensemble piece Davis had less to do in the movie than in her usual starring roles but she took the part because “it was such an incredible document at that time, of everything we were going through.” Originally written in 1940, Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine opened on Broadway the following year on the cusp of the U.S.’s entry into World War II. Three-quarters of a century later, Berkeley Rep’s current revival confirms Davis’ assessment of the play with a newfound sense of relevance.

Set in Fanny Farrelly’s (an excellent Caitlin O’Connell) well-appointed Washington, D.C., manse, Rhine tells the story of her daughter Sara’s (Sarah Agnew) return from Europe after a twenty year absence. The posh stage design by Neil Patel evokes a country house like the Filoli estate in Woodside. When Fanny makes her entrance, O’Connell breathes the life of a grande dame into her. She ripostes badinage with everyone — from the servants to her son David (Hugh Kennedy) and their houseguests Marthe (Kate Guentzel) and Teck De Brancovis (Jonathan Walker).

Hellman familiarizes the audience with the Farrelly household by using all the trappings of a Noël Coward drawing room comedy. To all outward appearances, the playwright initially assembles the group to toss out frothy repartees in a grand setting. But after Sara arrives at her mother’s house, along with her German husband Kurt Muller (Elijah Alexander) and their three children, the benign façade begins to fade away. At first, it’s unclear why the Mullers have returned to the United States. Something grave enough that’s forced Sara to uproot her European children from their lives abroad.  

As the noble and tormented Kurt, Alexander has to wear many masks in character. His performance brought to mind the image of those violently unresolved triptychs by the painter Francis Bacon. Each panel of a painting like Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer depicts the same man’s distorted face in front of a different broken mirror. Kurt is similarly afflicted — but with good reason. Fascism is on the rise overseas. When Kurt and Sara walk into Fanny’s living room, they’re literally bringing the war home with them. In Rhine, Hellman is provoking the affluent Farrellys out of their long-distance indifference to it.  

A month before the 2016 presidential election, Berkeley Rep staged a production of Sinclair Lewis It Can’t Happen Here. That play, written in 1936, envisions an America with a fascist president elected into office. Both Lewis and Hellman use elements of suspense in their plots but Watch on the Rhine’s focus on character is sharper. After Lewis’ demagogue attains power and implements his dystopian vision, It Can’t Happen Here relies on liberal truisms that only preach to the choir. Hellman is just as interested in upholding democratic principles but she’s a more skillful dramatist. She folds moral grit, willful ignorance and moral compromise into the souls of an extended family.

Under Lisa Peterson’s fine direction, the production is affecting because it locates the political in the Mullers’ flesh and blood. Rhine allows that some men and women are willing to sacrifice their personal lives for a greater good without idealizing or abstracting them into ideological mouthpieces. They’re brave enough to give up their comfortable sofas and settees in order to do the right thing.

Watch on the Rhine, through Jan. 14, at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org.

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