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Signature Premiere Peeks Into WW II ‘Diaries’

In the past, John Strand’s play have been triggered by the history of colonial America ("Tom Walker"), the Iran/Contra affai ("Three Nights in Tehran") and and the hard-to-believe but all too true importation of a pygmy exhibited at a world’s fair ("Otabenga"). This year Strand thinks through yet another historical quandary.

In "The Diaries," Strand’s new play which opened at Signature Theatre last week, Strand’s thought process was set in motion by the diaries a Nazi officer maintained during the World War II occupation of Paris.

His thoughts led him to consider the compulsion of a writer to observe the world around him, and to record those observations.

The play is not a work of history or even what might qualify as historical fiction. Yes, it is set in a historical period. But it is less concerned with time and place, and centers on more timeless issues.

It questions a writer’s obligations, motivations and observations: Why does a writer write? What does a writer owe to his readers? What is the connection between the act of observing events and the act of recording your observations?

Strand’s diarist, Steffan Altsanger, looks back on the events of World War II from a post-war perspective, after he has changed his name and forged a respected career as an entomologist, applying his powers of observation and his ability to document his observations to the insect world.

Just as he’s about to receive an award for a lifetime of achievement as a scientist, a researcher unearths Altsanger’s diaries in an archive and demands an explanation.

Through a series of flashbacks, the play makes clear that Altsanger had started to maintain a scrupulously honest and detailed record of the Nazi occupation of Paris, but was forced by his superiors to alter the record, creating a doctored version. Which of the observations in the discovered diary are true and which are not?

To complicate matters, Altsanger was subsequently posted to the Russian front, where keeping a diary was prohibited. But he continued his habit surreptitiously. That second diary, however, may not have survived the war.

Ed Gero, a four-time Helen Hayes Award winner for acting, makes his Signature Theater debut as Altsanger. Gero is a commanding presence on any stage, having made lasting impressions in a wide range of roles from Shakespearean characters to Richard Nixon.

He’s every bit as commanding here, but the script has him at the peak of his emotion almost from the start. So it is difficult to separate the various causes of his distress. He has so many things to be angry or fearful or frustrated about, the precise nature and source of his rage is frequently hard to detect.

The cast includes three other performers making Signature debuts. Julia Coffey is effective in multiple roles, especially as Altsanger’s daughter, and Sybil Lines is a striking "doctress" who befriends the diarist so long as it doesn’t become a threat to her welfare.

Daniel Frith is Kurt, the researcher who challenges Altsanger at the start of the play, and also plays the Nazi who challenges him in his Paris days.

In Act Two, when Gero’s character is banished to the Russian front, Frith becomes a young soldier becomes aide to the newly arrived officer — a prime assignment, because keeping the diarist alive increases the possibility that he will survive as well. This supporting role actually turns out to be about the most interesting one in the play.

Signature’s black box theater can be arranged in any number of ways, depending on the concept of the production. Here, in Ethan Sinnott’s set design, the audience is placed behind railings, like the enclosure of a jury-box, surrounding all four sides of a central space.

That space is dominated in the first act by platforms, like books, and a magnifying lens through which Altsanger examines the world. In the second act, however, the books are gone, and the lens is suspended above the stage, putting the diarist himself under direct examination.

This new play is the second installment in a program sponsored by the Himar Tharp Sallee Charitable Trust, which funds a new play every year for four years. Last year it was Norman Allen’s "In The Garden," which went on to win a Hayes Award last month for best new play.