A Bright Room Called Day, CMU’s final mainstage production of the season, traces Germany’s rapid and tumultuous transition from democracy to fascism and focuses on Hitler and the Nazi party in the period of 1932-33. It is seen through the eyes of a group of artists and intellectuals with varying degrees of communist leanings. The play’s characters act as a mirror for how the German population was swept away by these cataclysmic changes as the Nazis dismantled Germany’s democracy and brought its populace to heel.
A Bright Room Called Day, written in 1985, is author Tony Kushner’s first play which would be followed up ten years later by his now classic Angels in America (now in revival on Broadway with Nathan Lane).
Kushner treats the story as a series of vignettes that follows the characters as they struggle and cope with the rapid descent into fascism and the denials that the German Left has offered as its excuse for inaction and political fragmentation.
The action takes place in the apartment of Agnes Eggling (Sarah Pidgeon). It opens on New Year’s Eve with a party and promise of a bright future and new beginnings. Agnes is a middle-aged actress and “sort of” communist party sympathizer, although she never actually signed up. Vealtnine Husz (Will Brosnahan), an eye patched Hungarian film maker, shares her bed, if not her apartment as well. Her best friend is a neurotic, highly self-centered, locally successful blonde actress, Paulinka Erdnuss (Kennedy McMann). She drops in to share sanctuary and commiserate on the fate of the German film industry and the sudden, unannounced departure of her Jewish therapist. Other compatriots are Gregory Bazwald (Carson McCalley), a gay sex addict whose chief concern seems to be the condition of his mascara and Annabella Gotchling (Elanor Pearson) a painter & poster maker. Later we meet Rosa Malek (Aubyn Heglie) and Emil Traum (Orlando Davis) who are communist party activists. Each struggle with their own decision to resist or leave Germany as their society crumbles. Only Agnes, who loves her apartment, hates to travel and doesn’t make friends easily chooses to remain put and endure the departure of her friends.
This CMU production, directed by CMU’s Jed Allen Harris, frames the vignettes with the historical timeline and wraps them in films and photographs of the day with Media Design by Jessica Medenbach. Shockingly, it took the Nazis a mere six months to unravel centuries of progress and reconfigure German political and social institutions to suit themselves.
Perhaps Kushner doesn’t trust his audience to see the impending doom, but just to make sure we don’t miss it, he inserts a few transcendental characters. There is a visit by the devil in the character of Gottfried Swetts (Clayton Berry) an importer of Spanish curiosities. An old woman who enters via the windows., Die Alte (Diyar Banna), appears to Agnes. Perhaps she is a ghost, a homeless person or a burglar. She is hauntingly and intimately involved in Agnes’ decisions. Kushner inserts one additional character, Zillah Katz (Aleyse Shannon), a young woman who lives in Long Island and believes that Regan is too much like Hitler. Harris and set designer Henry Blazer have her occupy a desk downstage left between the apartment and audience. Most of the time she sits studying except for a few asides to explain Hitler and Regan’s similarity to the devil. She also performs the opening musical number of the second act (yes, a song) exploring her fascination with Hitler. Her upbeat and cheeky delivery is an odd foil to the despair and melancholy of the German characters.
A Bright Room Called Day is a good test track for conservatory theatre program actors. The characters are complex with a range of emotions and perspectives on display and to a great extent, the cast meets the challenges in stride. The first act drags until the arrival of Clayton Barry’s devil in the form of Gottfried Sweets. Perhaps it’s the billow of smoke for his entrance, of the devil’s red-eyed dog entering through the window or Barry’s commanding stature, but it’s just the pick me up to bring the audience back to focus. Barry’s devil has a cane and club foot, which he presents masterfully.
Costume Designer Mikki LoPinto, dresses the cast in neat contemporary to their era attire, oblivious to the decay around them. Sweet looks as if he has fallen into a puddle of salt dust or bleach with his black outfit, perhaps having once been white. Diyar Banna’s Old Woman scurries about like a church mouse dress in a monochromatic silver gray. Paula Halpern’s sound design follows Kushner’s in case you didn’t get it mantra; adding loud bluster to the devil and echoes to the Old Woman.
Kushner states in his writer’s notes that contemporary restaging’s address the current political climate rather than the Regan era politics. However, Harris has chosen to stick with the original as written, perhaps trusting the audience and believing that we will get it.
Is A Bright Room Called Day’s thesis about commitment; resist, get out or do nothing? Is Kushner’s hope that his historical narrative will force American’s to examine “the wholesale overturning of the American progressive social agenda in place since the Depression.” We too are in a climate of political change and social unrest. What do we choose?
Kushner’s narrative for A Bright Room Called Day isn’t as cohesive as it could be. At nearly three hours with intermission, the audience gets fidgety by the end of the acts. It is not a surprise though that thirty plus years after its writing, there still is a valuable lesson to be learned. We are reminded in how fast the transition from democracy to fascism can occur. Hopefully, we all get it sooner than later.
In this play, there are no happy endings.
A Bright Room Called Day at the Phillip Chosky Theatre on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University has performances April 14th and 24th to 28th at 8 pm and a 2 pm matinee on Saturday the 28th. For tickets visit http://drama.cmu.edu .
Thanks to CMU Drama for the complimentary tickets.
Categories: Archived Reviews