The drama unfolds in a darkened jail cell in Berlin, 1933. Hannah Arendt (who at the time of the play was married to Gunther Stern), has recently completed her doctorate in philosophy and been denounced as a Zionist and arrested by Karl Frick, a young police officer newly promoted from the criminal division to the political police, and eager to do well and enforce the party line against Zionism.
Arendt understands the seriousness of her detention, and that survival depends on convincing this young man that she is not a Zionist, but rather a philosopher immersed in esoteric ideas.
“Mrs. Stern Wanders the Prussian State Library,” by New York City playwright Jenny Lyn Bader, tackles familiar Holocaust themes, but from an unusual angle at an unusual moment. The audience must set aside what everyone knows about Nazis, since the idea of a political police division is new in the 1930s, although the Reichstag, German parliament, has been burned down by arsonists. It’s unclear how Frick will do under this regime, let alone in a position where he has to not just follow rules, but also make his own decisions. Where is his moral compass?
In a moment of intense polarization in our own political discourse, the play is more than a history lesson and a drama; it’s also a dissertation on how to speak to another person across a seemingly impassable gulf. Besides being a snapshot into a tumultuous period in history, the play reminds audiences of the relevance of Arendt’s writings on totalitarianism.
In this production, Arendt is not a looming philosopher whose ideas we want to probe, but a young woman with inner strength and imagination to complement her intellect who must find a way to communicate with a potentially sympathetic captor.
Each interaction between the two main characters starts with Frick entering Arendt’s cell with some new evidence to further confirm that she is, in fact, a Zionist. She unpacks each argument, offers a different perspective, and reveals how wrong he really is, how innocent she really is. Arendt was looking for a special recipe for a cake for her mother’s birthday, mimeographing newspapers that might lead her to the right recipe. It is purely a coincidence that these newspapers reported incidents of anti-Semitism in Germany at the same time Zionists were believed to be smuggling these reports out of Germany to share with the world. She had no idea what purpose that action would serve, or why they might want to do so.
And that her mimeographing began shortly after meeting with Kurt Blumenfeld, the head of the Zionist Federation of Germany? Another coincidence, since Blumenfeld was merely a friend of her husband’s, and she had no idea what position he held or what politics he was involved with, nor would she consider using her access to the Prussian State Library inappropriately. That notebook in Greek is not written in code, she tells him, but rather it’s an academic language she often uses.
Frick, a fictional name for the empathetic interrogator Arendt later described as having a kind face, according to Bader, shares information about his life, hoping to press her to answer his questions. She uses his experiences, however, to reveal their shared humanity.
Pointing to her husband at the time, Gunther Stern, as “a depressive,” Frick says that he understands how hard it is to live with a depressed person — his young wife fell into a depression following the birth of their child. She tells him that it is not an uncommon experience, that he is not alone, and he is reassured — for his wife’s sake, but also that Arendt is a fine person, and that she could not be a Zionist, something he understands to be evil.
The performance by Giuliana Carr, who plays Arendt, might have been stronger if she had tapped into Arendt’s depth instead of focusing on external displays of nervousness: breathing shallowly, rubbing her hands, shaking. It’s hard to believe a woman of this fortitude would exhibit that kind of outward anxiety over the entire course of her eight-day detention. Neither did Carr allow the character to find the chemistry with her captor that feels like it should have been an essential part of the play.
By contrast, Brett Temple gives a solid performance as Frick, whether secretly leaving cigarettes for Arendt, sharing domestic complexities, questioning her, or struggling to understand the order shifting beneath his feet. The actor is the son of a retired New Jersey police officer, and Temple suggested in a prepared statement that his father’s work helped him prepare. “While they are very different police officers, in different times, they still follow a similar moral code and they have similar values,” he said. “Both put themselves on the line to help other people.”
Bader originally conceived the play for an evening of short pieces called “More Jewish Women You Should Know” at the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect in Manhattan. Over time it became a full-length play. The Luna Stage production marks its world premiere.
Arendt is not exactly an unknown. One of the great political philosophers of the 20th century, she studied with Martin Heidegger and earned a doctorate from the University of Heidelberg. After escaping Germany, she settled in Paris and worked for the Youth Aliya, but she was detained there in 1940 and fled to the United States. She spent the rest of her life in New York, where she published books on power, totalitarianism, the nature of evil, and the human condition. She is credited with coining the term “the banality of evil” in her reporting for the New Yorker from Jerusalem on the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
Other dramatic works have been written about Arendt, including a 1999 novel by Catherine Clément about her relationship with Heidegger, “Martin and Hannah,” and a 2012 German film about the controversy of her reporting on the Eichmann trial, “Hannah Arendt,” directed by Margarethe von Trotta.
In a talkback following the show, Bader said she chose to focus on the German detention in part because less has been written about it than other parts of Arendt’s life.
Before heading to the theater, I did a quick rundown of my own knowledge of the woman born Johanna Arendt (1906-1975). I realized I knew little beyond the basics. Maybe that reflects poorly on me, but she really is a woman I want to know more about now, and “The Portable Hannah Arendt” (Penguin Classics, 2003) is making its way to the top of the pile of books on my nightstand.
If I’m honest, I’m also curious what happened to Frick (apparently, we don’t know) and a lawyer, played by Karl Kenzler, who is sent to help Arendt by the Zionist Federation of Germany.
“Mrs. Stern Wanders the Prussian State Library” runs through Nov. 17 at Luna Stage, West Orange. $20-$40, visit lunastage.org or call 973-395-5551.