The truth is hard to swallow in Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s drama, often gulfed down with tipples of whiskey and drags on cigarettes. In this taut staging by her countryman Lee Wilson for Brinkmanship Theatre, a wry German named Rudi (Colin Campbell) reveals his family history on a wood-built stage that impressively extends out to encompass the audience as in the galleries of a courtroom. Wilson, slyly, has cast us as jury in a war trial.
Growing up in 1970s Paraguay, Rudi was aware that his father had served with the German army. After World War II, his family and several others were secretly spirited away to South America by the ODESSA scheme (Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen, or Organization of Former SS Members), a Nazi network designed to facilitate escape routes. When a classmate Hermann (Liam Heslin) inadvertently reveals that Rudi’s father was in fact an SS doctor who conducted torturous experiments at Auschwitz, imaginably, he is sent spiralling.
A sweet playing up of desire between Campbell and Heslin’s bewildered schoolboys is perhaps a teenage rebellion in the most typical sense, to outright offend a parent’s sensibilities. Wilson’s rigorous staging (marking his professional Irish debut) makes the scope of that feel extensive, as if the only way to shake off a painful legacy is to self-mythologise; files and suitcases begin to appear magically from under the floorboards of Ger Clancy’s set, while Zia Holly’s lighting blinks between interior lamps and more mystical hues.
Clancy’s set is pliable, imaginable ground for study rooms in the Paraguayan Nazi village, and the Berlin library where Rudi ends up swapping war stories with Sarah (Erin Flanigan), a Jewish New Yorker and daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Rudi decidedly conceals the dark link between family histories as their relationship flares. But exoticism seems to be the real object of his attraction; upon his insistence, she speaks her prayers aloud for him under pretty lights. In contrast, Flanigan offers up a sparky romantic who begins to suspect something perverse.
Albeit a sly and charming lead, Campell loses heat. Facetious throwaways in the script get the better of him (when Rudi’s father walks in on him in a compromising sexual position, he asks the audience “Nice image, isn’t it?”). We lose the underlying sense of a character blinkered by his father’s atrocities, a son whose crucial decisions are influenced by a will to obliterate his father’s mark on the world. That’s a storm that Heslin is better in capturing, whose unsuspecting performance as Hermann is the draw of this production.
Dominant historical perspectives will clamp down on the Holocaust in terms of where sympathies lie. It’s gutsy of Moscovitch, therefore, to shine light on family members of Nazi war criminals, and the complicated legacies that rise. Brinkmanship Theatre’s judicial production reminds us that trials can be passed from father to child, even if the culpability of the parent is kind of obvious. Measuring the extremes of a son forced between acknowledging his father as a monster and loving him, that’s harder to pass judgement.