The Beams Are Creaking from A. D. Players: A Finely Realized Production of a Dull, Monotonous Play

Kevin Dean as Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Kevin Dean as Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Photo by RicOrnelProductions

The setup:

The life of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who opposed Hitler and paid for his resistance with his life, is so full of drama that his story should be a natural for the theater. Just the basic facts would fill a play threefold: an international man of God, whose influence ranged from America throughout Europe, stands up to the very face of evil, joins the underground spy network, plans the assassination of Hitler, is caught and dies a martyr to the cause of good people doing their best in times of unspeakable horror. Yet Douglas Anderson's The Beams Are Creaking -- named for the secret code for the assassination attempt -- which receives an atmospheric physical production from A.D. Players and is wonderfully played, is exceedingly plodding and, yes, very much a dull, monotonous exercise.

The execution:

While Anderson's drama touches upon the highlights of Bonhoeffer's amazing career, the play has no life in it. Never do we have a sense of what drives intellectual Bonhoeffer to these heroic deeds. We never get a true picture of the man, whose life was so rich in particulars. We see him at first as an innocent, apolitical man of God, thoroughly debunking the idea that someone of Hitler's kind would rise to power. He's as incredulous as his dear Jewish friends, the Leibholzes (Chip Simmons and Sarah Cooksey), who a few scenes later furtively flee Germany for friendlier shores.

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Scenes of deep dramatic power creep by in vignette style (his famous confrontational radio speech about Hitler's misuse of power, which was cut off the air mid-speech by the Nazis, goes nowhere), as if Anderson has a duty to include these pivotal episodes but doesn't see fit to dramatize them. There's an awkward scene of book burning, visually staged with blazing red lights, that depicts the students throwing volumes into the offstage pyre, but it goes nowhere, too. And the introductory scenes that explain the Abwehr, the German intelligence unit akin to our CIA, are clumsy and gloss over exactly how this organization was used as the base by the resistance.

It's all perfunctory, as is the handling of Bonhoeffer himself. Kevin Dean, always an actor of quiet conviction and depth, has no one to play. First, as an innocent, he doubts that Germany would fall prey to someone like Hitler. When events turn ugly and even the church bows to the Fuehrer's will, upholding anti-Semitic laws and swearing abiding allegiance to the cause, Bonhoeffer is persuaded to join the resistance. Since the scenes aren't fully explored, Bonhoeffer's motivations get sketchy treatment, too. He's a good man throughout, but without much of a heartbeat. He's rather bland, which the fiery Bonhoeffer definitely was not.

The subsidiary characters come off best, even if there's not much to them, and all the actors handle their roles with the usual smooth aplomb for which A.D. Players is noted. Most play multiple roles, and develop their characters with much more depth than Anderson supplies. Chip Simmons gets appropriately nasty as Nazi toady Bishop Muller, but is entirely sympathetic as Bonhoeffer's Jewish friend Gerhard Leibholz. Ric Hodgin appears appropriately befuddled as Bonhoeffer's gentlemanly father and then rigidly conflicted as Englishman Bishop Bell from Chichester. Sarah Cooksey is her usual pro self as uncomprehending Mrs. Leibholz ("How could this be happening in Germany?") and then as Bonhoeffer's sadly comprehending fiancée, who seems to know that this prison visit will be the last time she sees her beloved. Their quick scene, full of restrained passion and unsaid emotion, is the best written of the lot, and these two pros play it beautifully, shading it with more thought than Anderson supplies.

As a historical play, Beams is staged with glacial pacing; everything seems underwater, which I assume is director Christy Walker's way to give import to the material. A little more speed would help enormously. It's bad enough we don't get Bonhoeffer in his own play, but to watch his life limp by feels like we have to eat our spinach. This is good for you, Anderson and Walker imply, pay attention, although we're going to make this as tiring as possible. Except for the guard's (Jeff McMorrough) abortive attempts to offer Bonhoeffer an escape plan and the visit by his fiancée, Act II, set inside the military prison at Tegel, is completely drama-free; it's full of snippets of Bonhoeffer's writings set as interior monologues, which does the play no service.

A.D. Players' production is finely realized, with many levels and areas to vary the staging, as well as crisp lighting and period costumes to set the mood. But all this is a futile attempt to infuse life into a series of arid, superficial history lessons.

The verdict:

In a Seattle newspaper interview, playwright Anderson, artistic director of the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, Vermont, explained his technique: "The lesson for beginning playwrights is, start with a good story and an amazing character." With the heroic Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Anderson has this in spades. Now all he needs to do is write a play that does full justice to one of history's most amazing characters.

The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Beams Are Creaking, runs through June 10 at A.D. Players, 2710 Alabama. Purchase tickets online or call 713-526-2721. Tickets start at $34.


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