The immigration debate from another era couldn’t escape parallels with the current one during a special performance of “Watch on the Rhine” on Thursday night at Arena Stage.
The play takes place while America is on the brink of World War II and Fanny Farrelly, a wealthy woman played by four-time Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner Marsha Mason, and her lawyer son, David Farrelly, take two refugee families into their home just outside Washington, D.C.
One is made up of a Romanian count, Teck De Brancovis, and his wife Marthe De Brancovis. The countess is an American and grew up near the suburban Washington home in which she’s now staying. The count is a fascist and Nazi sympathizer.
The other family includes Farrelly’s daughter, whom she hasn’t seen for 20 years. Sara Muller left the Washington area and moved to Germany to marry a German man, Kurt Muller. The couple and their three children arrive at the house hungry and shaken up from their lives in Europe.
Kurt Muller is on the run from the Nazis but the Farrellys don’t know the extent of his involvement in the resistance, and know little about what’s going on beyond their suburban Washington life.
Teck De Brancovis does, and creates tension in the home by trying to bait the Mullers into admitting to the Farrellys that Kurt is a wanted man in Germany.
A profound moment in the play comes when Kurt Muller is forced to explain how active he was in the anti-Nazi resistance in his country and the guilt that he feels for not being honest with the Farrellys.
“You’re political refugees,” David Farrelly tells his brother in law, and they don’t turn people like that away. At that line, applause erupted throughout the theater, forcing the actors to pause until it subsided.
The performance is, in parts, a glimpse into the influence and lifestyle of Washingtonians in the period before World War II, a reminder of political tensions during monumental moments in history, and a struggle of one man trying to save his country from the Nazis while protecting his family’s safety.
At the post-play reception, Arena Stage’s artistic director Molly Smith said she wanted people to ask themselves, “What would I do if I were in 1940? You would be doing the same thing you’re doing now.”
She acknowledged the parallels between the play and the current debate over admitting refugees from Muslim-majority countries, but pointed out that the theater chose to take on the production long before that debate got more intense with the election of Donald Trump as president.
“Watch on the Rhine” was written by playwright Lillian Hellman in 1941, and this production is the second of her works this season at Arena Stage, after “The Little Foxes” ran in September and October.
This production runs through March 5. The Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater is located at 1101 Sixth St. SW.