Playwright: Abby Mann
At: Shattered Globe at Victory Gardens, 2257 N. Lincoln
Phone: (773) 871-3000
Runs through: March 2
BY RICK REED
Judgment at Nuremberg, which deals with the war crime trials of Germany's highest judges at Nuremberg, Germany in 1948, is now in a shattering, nearly flawless production by one of Chicago's most quietly talented theater companies, Shattered Globe.
Playwright Abby Mann adapted the script from his 1961 Oscar-award winning film, which starred Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, and Judy Garland. The film itself was an adaptation of an earlier teleplay. I had seen neither of the play's predecessors, and I wonder if either could be as solid as this production. Part of the reason I wonder is because Shattered Globe's production, under the tasteful and unerring direction of Louis Contey, makes such an impact in the small studio space of one of Victory Gardens' upstairs studio theaters. The audience is forced into a kind of uncomfortable intimacy here, and that makes its depiction of Nazi atrocities all the more compelling …and haunting. As an audience, we take our own role: that of spectators in a courtroom rather than viewers of a theatrical production. The distinction is powerful, causing us to experience the play, rather than to simply view it.
In the 1940s, much attention was given to the trials of Hitler's top henchman, like Goerring and Speer, but the trials of lesser figures (and perhaps no less responsible) didn't hold the same sway in the time's headlines, nor the same resonance in history. But that's precisely what makes Judgment at Nuremberg such a fascinating study in human nature. This play chronicles the judgment of an American tribunal of three German judges, charged not only with crimes of war, but crimes against humanity. What makes this exercise so gripping and thought-provoking is that, unlike the war crime trials of more infamous figures in the Nazi regime, the culpability of not only those on trial, but the culpability of the entire German people, is called into question. Were the German people aware of what was going on in the death camps? Or were they merely following the charismatic rhetoric of a man who had lifted them out of economic and social depression? Did they see the loss of what Hitler referred to as less desirable minorities as a small price to pay for the restoration of their national pride and vigor? Were these judges, on trial for unspeakable atrocities such as forced sterilization and dealing out death sentences to Jews without the benefit of evidence, simply following the rules of a new order? Where does the blame for what happened during the Holocaust end?
These are just a few of the questions this thoughtful drama begs. What lies at the heart of it, though, is culpability. Who can we hold responsible? Where does our understanding end and their responsibility begin? Shattered Globe does terrific ensemble work here to bring the trials and the deeply moral questions these hearings wrought to life. There is nary a weak link in the cast, so it's hard to single out one performance over another. Somehow, Judgment at Nuremberg managed to bring out the most compassionate, believable, and heartfelt performances possible. Contey's staging is impeccable; a pall of gloom and unease hangs over everything. The design team (Kevin Hagen, set, Shelley Strasser Holland, lighting, Andrew Hansen, sound, and Nicole Rene Burchfeild, costumes) translates the mood of somberness well, in shadows, shades of gray, and a sense of ruination.
Hard-hitting and blessed with a perfect confluence of artistry and craft, Judgment at Nuremberg is amazing.