Alix Sobler’s play “Sheltered,” directed by Kimberly Senior, may well be the most finished, polished winner ever of the Alliance Theatre’s 14-year-old Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition. It runs through March 25, and I advise getting tickets now—first things first.
The show is playing at Actor’s Express; you recall the Alliance is “on the road” this year while its Woodruff Arts Center home is being totally rebuilt.
This taut drama is set in Philadelphia and Vienna in 1939 when much of the civilized world was hoping the encroaching Nazi menace was either exaggerated or would just go away. For Act 1 we’re in the well-appointed living room of young Jewish couple named Evelyn and Leonard Kirsch (Amanda Drinkall and John Skelley).
They do not have their heads in the sand; the Anschluss (Germany’s annexation of Austria) and Kristallnacht have both occurred, and Evelyn and Leonard know the menace is real. They have hatched an incredibly bold plan: to rescue 50 children from Vienna and bring them to the United States to be placed with foster families until their parents immigrate.
If this plan sounds far-fetched, know that the Kirsches’ idea is based on a true story. As the play opens, Evelyn and Leonard are entertaining their estranged friends Roberta and Martin Bloom (Park Krausen and Leo Osorio). They are going to ask the Blooms if they will take in a child from Vienna.
But Roberta and Martin are not happy campers: Their marriage is tense, to put it mildly, and Martin thinks the Nazi threat is somewhat bogus. “It’s terrible the things you hear,” he says, “but it’s a lot of smoke and noise.” Never underestimate the power of denial.
Roberta seems smoldering with ill-concealed anger; at one point her husband humiliates her: “The adults are talking.” Again, Roberta and Martin have no idea of what they’re about to be asked to do (taking in a child); and it seems highly unlikely that they would agree to such a thing.
Playwright Sobler starts slowly and carefully. Some of the opening dialogue is amusing but nonetheless brittle. Even the Blooms seem to sense that dire issues are unfolding. Sobler says, “I think the most effective way to ask larger, political questions is through character-driven stories”; and that is what she does—brilliantly. She leaves it to the audience to calibrate the current political climate in the U.S.
She is aided by some superb actors, about whom I can hardly say enough. I’ve never seen Ms. Krausen emanate such hurt and anger. Her husband (Mr. Osorio) is almost combative in his pseudo-socially poised manner. Both these actors are at the top of their game.
As for Evelyn and Leonard, their intensity and desperation and awareness of the ticking clock for 50 children in Vienna are totally compelling. This is Ms. Drinkall’s Alliance debut, and she is splendid; Mr. Skelley (also a debut) exudes a powerful decency that is just right.
The second act occurs in Nazi-occupied Vienna and introduces a fifth character: Hani (Lauren Boyd Lane—another fine performance), mother of one of the children that Leonard and Evelyn are taking back to America. I shall say little about this act except it needs to be experienced, and is unforgettable.
The period set design (Jack Magaw) and costume design (Nan Zabriskie), especially for Act One’s drawing room, are sumptuous. You can always count on the Alliance for Broadway-quality design.
Kimberly Senior’s direction is seamless, perceptive, and meticulous. Ms. Sobler’s drama has been called political theatre; that may be, but I find it intensely personal. For her 1st Place win in the Kendeda competition, the Alliance has given this talented playwright a launching pad that is stunning.
For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.