Ashland Community Theatre stages play by Ronald Harwood

When I opened my program at the Monday night performance of Ronald Harwood's 1995 play "Taking Sides" I was happy to see the familiar Ashland Community Theatre logo inside. ACT has provided many rewarding evenings of theater over the years, including a reading of "Taking Sides" in 2005.

The company, no longer based at Ashland Middle School, is staging its current production upstairs at the Elks Club in Ashland. When ACT staged Steve Martin's "Picasso at Lapin Agile" in a cafe in Talent, the site provided the perfect ambiance. In a similar way, the room in the Elks Club provides just the right touch of post-WWII atmosphere. The windows are hung with long, green drapes. There is a file cabinet, stacks of framed pictures off to the side and a long table in front of a long bar which could be a courtroom bench. The cast and the audience are seated in wooden captain's chairs. It's 1946 and we are in a room in Berlin witnessing Harwood's fictional account of the preliminary proceedings for the Dernazification Tribunal.

The proceedings are in the hands of U.S. Major Steve Arnold (Michael Meyer). Arnold is convinced that Wilhelm Furtwangler (David Dials), the renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, served the Nazi regime by staying in Germany after Hitler came to power rather than leaving as many of his colleagues did. Furtwangler maintains that art is independent of politics and by staying he protected and sustained the culture of his people.

Harwood is British and we are told in the play that the British military handled themselves like gentlemen during the proceedings. The American officer on stage, however, is a boor. He brags that he has no culture, insists on referring to Furtwangler as a "band leader" and constantly finds an opportunity to refer to Hilter as Furtwangler's "friend Adolf." He is broadly drawn as the classic "Ugly American" with large doses of Senator McCarthy's witch-hunt mania. "We are dealing with degenerates here," he says to his staff. Tamara Sachs (Victoria Simone Stewart) pleading on behalf of Furtwangler says to Arnold, "It's an outrage, what you're doing, behaving like them ..." and later, "You want to destroy him. You want to burn him at the stake." At one point Furtwangler says to Arnold, "You have no idea how stupid and impertinent your remarks are." And so it goes, back and forth.

The play is wordy and clocks in at about two and a half hours. Accusations and rejoinders are made and then made again. Through it all, Dials gives us a dignified Furtwangler who has enough inner strength to stand up to Arnold's bullying. His German accent is convincing and he has the rarefied bearing of another age. Meyer's Arnold is less well drawn. He is boorish alright, but we don't sense where his power to bully comes from. Certainly it's not from his uniform. He insists that his secretary call him Steve. He doesn't seem to have enough of the moral self-righteousness that religious fanatics convey.

What he has is a recurring nightmare of having seen the concentration camp at Bern-Belsen. He even has photos in his desk to remind him of the horrors. Someone has to be punished and Furtwangler is the scapegoat. "We're going to nail him!" Arnold gloats. One wonders what a more evolved Major Arnold would have made of the carnage perpetrated by his own military upon the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The supporting cast is strong and represents the humanity left in the wake of the war and in Arnold's private continuation of it. Stewart gives us a nearly mad widow, clinging to the memory of her husband. Bob Brazeau is a broken man who was once a second violinist with the Berlin Philharmonic and is talked in to striking a plea bargain with Arnold. Caleb Brumley is the young officer assigned to work with Arnold. His efforts to deflect some of Arnold's verbal abusiveness reminded me of the voice raised at the McCarthy hearings: "Have you no shred of human decency, senator?" MiLisa Cleo gives an outstanding performance as Emmi Straube, a young German woman who is Arnold's secretary and translator. Like Wills, she represents the rest of us when she recoils at Arnold's barrages. We see her face contort and her body cringe.

Part of the challenge of mounting this play is for the director not to take sides, but let the audience come to its own conclusions. The 2001 movie version of the play reportedly was heavy-handed. Thankfully Jeannine Grizzard's direction is less prejudiced than her director's notes in the program. Sorting out the moral complexities of such weighty matters prompted Arthur Miller to call his witch-hunt play "The Crucible." If art and politics truly are to be kept separate, how do you write and produce a play about that without writing a polemic? "Taking Sides" works &

as theater so often can &

providing a window into a world where there are no simple answers. Ashland Community Theatre is to be commended for opening that window.

Performances are 8 p.m. Saturdays and Mondays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 29, at The Elk's Club, 255 E. Main St., Ashland. Call 840-1527.

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