Lillian Hellman’s ‘Watch on the Rhine’ admirably revived by Berkeley Rep

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 Watch on the Rhine. Photo: Kevin Berne

Lillian Hellman (1905 –1984), celebrated author and left-wing political activist, would be both pleased and saddened that her 1940 play is being applauded across the country 77 years after it was written. Pleased, of course, that her literary prowess is not forgotten, but saddened because Berkeley Rep and Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, which co-produced this revival, believe that it is once again vital to “sound the alarm” in the U.S. — against fascism, xenophobia, corruption and restricted immigration.

Watch on the Rhine still succeeds with its clarion call. It’s not a perfect play; it’s a bit dated, and occasionally more drawn-out and talky than we are used to these days. But it conveys a genuine and truthful significance through its first-rate, articulate writing, skilled direction (by Lisa Peterson) and some admirable acting.

As Act One of Watch on the Rhine opens, it’s April 1940. The United States is still firmly neutral with regard to the unraveling European political situation, despite the alarming reports from overseas. In a splendid country home outside of Washington, D.C. lives matriarch and widow, Fanny Farrelly (marvelous Caitlin O’Connell), who reveres her husband’s memory. Her mild-mannered, unmarried, middle-aged son, lawyer David (Hugh Kennedy) who also lives there, never quite measures up to his father’s image. The household is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Fanny’s estranged daughter, Sara Muller (strong performance by Sarah Agnew), her German husband, Kurt Muller (splendid Elijah Alexander) and their three children, who are returning to the States after 20 years in Europe.

While awaiting her daughter’s arrival, the warm and likeable Fanny nervously jibbers and jabbers with housekeeper Anise (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong). We also meet two house guests, an enigmatic, insolvent Romanian count of uncertain morality, Teck de Brancovis (Jonathan Walker), and his attractive younger American wife, Marthe (winning Kate Guentzel), who is the daughter of an old friend of Fanny’s. It appears that only their poverty is keeping their marriage afloat. They have been guests for six weeks and hope to stay as long as possible, although Fanny’s gracious hospitality is quickly waning.

From the lengthy first act it seems as if the play were a well-made drawing-room comedy, filled with amusing quips and bits of banter, but when the Muller family arrives, they bring sad and ominous tidings of European penury, fascism and corruption. Fanny’s extravagantly flowing velvet outfit (costumes by Raquel Barreto) and her sumptuous surroundings (set by Neil Patel) contrast dramatically with the Muller family’s drab clothing and pallor. Kurt Muller, once an engineer, has dedicated his life to heroic and daring anti-fascist activity, dragging his family from country to country, living on the run, with scarce resources. Sara Muller and the children are selfless, brave, and proud of Kurt, in a way few American wives or kids would be.

As the plot grows darker over two acts, one intermission and one five-minute stretch break, Fanny, David and the Muller family are called upon to test their politics and morality, as well as their courage and fortitude, when the world’s troubles are brought to their doorstep. It is here that Hellman succeeds best. Her audience can’t help but sympathize with the Mullers, who epitomize the hope of democratic Europe. Hellman has created memorable, sympathetic characters in a taut situation that makes us wonder where we would stand if similarly tested. Watch on the Rhine is compelling.

Watch on the Rhine is playing at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre through Jan. 14, 2018. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.