The American Century Theater will present the courtroom drama, “Judgment at Nuremberg,” from May 30-June 28 at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, in Arlington.
The play, written by Abby Mann, dealing with the Holocaust and complexities of the Nuremberg trials is based on the 1961 Academy Award-winning film starring Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, William Shatner, and Montgomery Clift.
Director and Helen Hayes winner Joe Banno, of Los Angeles, said even though it’s regarded as a period piece, the play still speaks to us today. “It still has relevance that transcends the horrors of World War II,” he said. “Where does responsibility of the law end and a personal sense of ethics begin? It’s that slippery slope where you start making small exceptions to your own code of morality and you find yourself excusing more and more,” said Banno, former artistic director of the Source Theater Company in D.C. for 10 years.
TACT Artistic Director Jack Marshall said this is the very first professional production of “Judgment at Nuremberg” in the D.C. area, the home of the U.S. judicial system, the Holocaust Museum, and the World War II Memorial.
Marshall said that the moral, legal and ethical problems in the Nuremberg trials are still being debated, and they have great significance for civilization. “What right do the victors in a war have to punish the losing side? Isn’t that hypocritical? The play involves the section of the trials that got the least publicity, the prosecution of the Nazi judges. Their defense was that they were bound to follow the laws of their nation, not question them, even if the laws were monstrous. What’s wrong with that defense, if anything? Or is it just a rationalization?” he asks.
Bruce Alan Rauscher plays the role of Colonel Lawson, the prosecuting attorney who is determined to nail every Nazi in Germany. “He’s going after the doctors, the businessmen, the judges — anybody who had anything to do with the Nazi party,” he said.
Regarding the courtroom scenes, Rauscher said, “The challenge was to make him sound realistic and bring something interesting to the character for the sake of the audience. I have some scenes outside the courtroom that are more natural.”
Steve Lebens, of Arlington, plays the role of Oscar Rolfe, the attorney who defends Ernst Janning, the principal defendant on trial. He said the challenge was to get inside the head of the man given the task of defending people for crimes that are indefensible.
“My character is arguing that the defendant did not make the laws that created the persecution of the Jews, but rather they were judges who were tasked with administering the laws,” Lebens said.
“It’s as very serious examination of social responsibility. That’s a universal question for people in all countries at all times, not just Germany following World War II.”
Karen Rosnizeck, of Washington, D.C., plays the role of Margaret Bertholt, an aristocratic widow from Germany whose lifestyle changes when her husband was executed. Marlene Dietrich played the film role.
As a native German, Rosnizeck said lately she’s been watching YouTube videos about the Nazis. “I remember my time in Germany and what we were taught about it. For me, it’s not just a play; I feel more related to it.”
She adds, “Even though it’s rooted in the Nazi history, the themes are universally human and the question about agents and victims is never as clear as one would like to have them. I also think it sheds a lot of light on the German and American relations back then.”
Christopher Henley, of Washington, D.C., plays the role of Rudolph Peterson, a political dissident witness who has been sterilized by the Nazis. “I’ve known the movie since I saw it almost 40 years ago, and the actor who played my role in the film was Montgomery Clift, who was my favorite actor,” he said. “I literally would take his birthday off on Oct. 17.”
He adds that the Nuremberg trials helped to establish the principles of international law. “It’s very relevant to what’s going on in the world and the challenges that the international community faces — in keeping atrocities from happening.”
Vanessa Bradchulis, of Washington, D.C., plays the role of Elsa Lindnow, a cleaning woman who is an eyewitness of Maria Wallner, who is accused of having relations with Mr. Feldenstein, a Jewish apartment owner. It is based on the real life Feldenstein case.
“I want to make sure that I represent the character truthfully, and to do so, it is necessary for me to understand the seed of such tremendous hatred she has for the Jews,” she said.
Jorge A. Silva, of Washington, D.C., plays the role of Capt. Geraldo Byers, the courtroom bailiff. “The quirk about him is he’s a person of color serving in the military and is currently in a romantic relationship with a German,” he said. “It’s immediately brought up that what could’ve happened in Germany could have happened anywhere else, given the right circumstances.”
Silva adds, “I would like people to walk away with a certain inquisition towards institutions — the moral and legal institutions, and the social and political framework that create events like these….And it’s a very strong reminder that we are not far and past from events like these.”
Ellie Nicoll of the District plays the role of Mrs. Halberstadt, the dedicated housekeeper who, “given the recent history, has some anxiety about how the judge and other Americans are perceiving the German people.”
She said, “She’s kind of an everyday working-class German hausfrau who was not political, not involved in Nazi affairs, but feels the guilt or remorse that comes after the revelation of all of the horrors perpetuated by the Nazi regime.”
“Judgment at Nuremberg” runs May 30-June 28 at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang St. There is a pay-what-you-can preview on Thursday, May 29 at 8 p.m. and a pay-what-you-can performance on Wednesday, June 4 at 8 p.m. There are a number of post-show talkbacks scheduled. TACT is inviting judges, lawyers and legal ethics experts to participate in pre- and post-show discussions of these and other tough issues raised by the play. Talkbacks will follow performances on Sunday, June 1, 2:30 p.m. and Thursday, June 5, 8 p.m. Regular show times are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. with Saturday/Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. No matinee Saturday, May 31. Visit americancentury.org or call 703-998-4555 for tickets.