They say that history repeats itself — first as tragedy, then as farce.
We can't be sure about how to describe the current political moment. But "Watch on the Rhine," which opened Friday in Lisa Peterson's stately and absorbing production at the Guthrie Theater, suggests that it could be both at once.
In many ways, the Lillian Hellman play sounds like something pulled from today's headlines. There's activism against fascism. There is a morally right but legally wrong crossing of the Mexican border. And the stately Farrelly household, a metaphor for a nation of people from different parts of the world, is fractured by external forces pressing on it. People must decide whether to fight for what is right or acquiesce to what is expedient.
That's heady stuff for the first Hellman play to be produced at the Guthrie, and one that was written 70-plus years ago. "Watch," which Hellman's lover Dashiell Hammett adapted into a 1943 film starring Bette Davis, served as a clarion call during the World War II era.
The Guthrie's stylish production does the same thing. For a work with such charged politics, it's not ham-fisted or heavy-handed. In fact, it feels like a very human story with some unusual characters.
Widow Fanny Farrelly (terse Caitlin O'Connell) tends to her late husband's memory with the devotion of a religious follower. She holds up her son David (Hugh Kennedy), an attorney who is lamentably single, for unfavorable comparisons. She also hosts guests, including a mysterious Romanian count with Nazi sympathies named Teck De Brancovis (Jonathan Walker) and his long-suffering wife, Marthe (Kate Guentzel).
The tensions ratchet up when Fanny's daughter Sara (Sarah Agnew) returns home for the first time in 20 years with her German-born engineer husband, Kurt Muller (Elijah Alexander), and their three children. The hungry Mullers (bizarrely rigid for anti-fascists) have been on the run since Kurt committed himself to defeating the Nazis.
It feels like we're constantly leaning into the action at the Farrellys, and not only because of Neil Patel's gorgeous single set — a great room that overlooks a patio and reflects lake light. (Alexander V. Nichols did the lighting design.)
The "Watch" acting company is exceptional, with a visceral, somewhat brutish performance by Alexander as Kurt, a character who bears the scars of living up to his ideals. His heavy movements and his silences tell us as much about him as his words. Agnew also communicates a world of suffering and devotion with her well-crafted interpretation of Sara. As Marthe, a woman who married young and is now finding her voice, Guentzel has a bristling fire about her. Her well-earned explosion is one of the evening's highlights. Kennedy's David also seeks to break free — for him, though, it's from his mother's judgment. O'Connell's Fanny is a woman of steel behind her silky garb.
Even Walker's count, a fellow who revels in icky deals, commands our attention in a show written for another moment. Still, this "Watch," with its impulse for moral clarity, calls out to audiences and artists today.