“Evil can be most appealing, even when it comes packaged so attractively,” declares the sage defense attorney, played by David Adler, to the young prosecutor. He’s referring to the captivating Irma Grese, known as the “Blonde Angel of Auschwitz.”
It is important to place a good deal of weight onto this observation as Irma, comrade and lover to the notoriously barbaric Dr. Josef Mengele, is revealed to be a complex villainess indeed. Drawn from the life and courtroom testimony of the notoriously sadistic Nazi guard, the drama becomes a psychological study on the fallibility of appearances and perceptions.
Using archival footage of Adolf Hitler greeting his fanatical countrymen from a Mercedes convertible, German recruitment posters from the ’30s and ’40s and video of Nazi-saluting HitlerJugend (the Aryan youth movement trained in anti-Semitism), director Bruce Folmer creates a haunting backdrop to open this chilling play at Port City Playhouse.
Stunning audio complements the visuals compiled by Folmer. A German folk song plays cheerfully against the screech of a train grinding to a halt, evoking the horror about to befall its innocent Jewish passengers. Ninety-six people in a railroad car meant to hold eight horses was standard operating procedure in this unthinkable transport.
Standing at attention before a large crimson-and-black Nazi flag, Irma, a paragon of SS fervor and shining example of The Third Reich, is revealed to the audience. Jack-booted and outfitted with Luger pistol and horsewhip, her beauty lies in stark contrast to the evil she represents.
She is 20 years old. She will be assigned to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp before being transferred to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Camp where she had an affair with Mengele. Later she would be sent to Bergen-Belsen, where she was ultimately captured by the British Army at 22 and sent to prison for her crimes.
Barely out of her teens, Irma oversaw 30,000 women. Her duty to The Reich was selecting victims condemned to the gas chambers known euphemistically as “bakeries.” At her trial in Luneberg, Germany, in 1945, she was accused of war crimes so brutal and sadistic, as to terrify Satan himself. Abandoned by her parents, her younger sister Helene, who dutifully visits her in prison, testifies to her cowardliness in the schoolyard and her former innocence.
The script adheres faithfully to actual testimony at trial. But it is in the exploration of the complexities of evil and its shifting effect on the characters that this play becomes a gripping drama.
Robin Zerbe reflects the twisted psyche of the amoral Irma convincingly. She chills us to the bone when she declares, “At Ravensbruck they had great teachers! There were two types: those that killed and those that were to be killed!”
Zerbe fashions a beguiling Salome, as unapologetic as a kitten and as deadly as an adder, ready to strike at a moment’s notice. Juxtaposing Irma is the pure-hearted Helene, played by the porcelain-skinned Deanna Gowland, who presents us with a delicate dirndl-clad Heidi more acceptable to our Teutonic memory. Gowland shows she is up to the task, with a subtle portrayal that reflects a promising future treading the boards.
The “nightmare” aspect of the titling arrives in the final act when the young prosecutor, played by Casey Jones, dreams of Irma. Jones does a good job of depicting a man in conflict, alternately displaying disgust and bewilderment. Charmed by her beauty, repelled by her acts, he is tormented by her influence on him. Also notable is Doug Sanford, who gives a performance rich with swagger as the chillingly manipulative monster, Josef Mengele.
Additional credit should go to Carol Strachan, as British accent coach, and Robin Zerbe. Her many years living in Germany allowed her to not only nail the accent, which she taught to her other cast members, but the gesticulations and inflections.
With “Angel: A Nightmare in Two Acts,” Port City Playhouse continues its well-earned reputation for successfully tackling serious and difficult topics by delving into highly charged racial, social and political material. It consistently prove its merit while serving as a beacon to community theatre.
At The Lab Studio Theatre at Convergence, 1819 N. Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302. Performances continue at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For tickets and information, call 703-838-2880, email PortCityInfo.com for reservations or visit www.portcityplayhouse.com.