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Review: Beets Brings World War II Home to Colorado

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Beets Read and Rant Productions Aurora Fox

My mother grew up in what is now Slovakia, and she used to tell a story about one of the Russian prisoners who'd been sent to work on her family's farm during World War I, when she was still a little girl. It seemed their bull had escaped, and when she wandered unsuspecting into the field, it charged her. She remembered running for her life, desperate because she knew there was no way to outrun the huge, raging creature -- and then the sounds behind her stopped. She turned and saw that the prisoner had leapt in front of the bull at great risk to his own life, caught the animal by the horns and turned its head, at which point the bull simply walked away. Yes, she assured me, taking the bull by the horns is not just a metaphor -- though it requires intense strength, both mental and physical. What my mother wanted to convey to me was her overwhelming gratitude, mixed with her bewildered understanding that the man who had saved her life was universally despised as the enemy.

Beets, a thoughtful, historical play by local writer Rick Padden, is set in Berthoud, Colorado, during World War II, when German prisoners were sent to this country and many ended up working in American fields. Although nothing in it exactly parallels my mother's story, you learn a lot from the script about prisoners of war and the mixed feelings of the local people who deal with them. And there is one eerie similarity to my mother's experience. See also: Hat's Off to The Motherfucker With the Hat

On first hearing that prisoners will be sent into the beet fields, Fred Hunt, a Berthoud farmer, erupts in fury: His own son is fighting overseas. His teenage daughter, Anna, is torn between fear and curiosity, while Isabelle, his wife, reveals an almost superhuman tolerance and empathy. Practical, down-to-earth neighbor Jim, whose own grandparents were German, points out that with so many young American men away at war, help with the harvest is desperately needed. When the German prisoners appear, they seem disciplined and courteous, particularly a 23-year-old named Dieter -- though Dieter is as convinced of Germany's righteousness as the Hunt family is of America's. Tense scenes unfold as Dieter and Anna develop feelings for each other and Fred argues with Isabelle, who's determined to feed and take care of these German boys as she deeply hopes her own boy is being taken care of somewhere. No matter how placid the action, there's always an undercurrent of violence, as when Anna reads a letter from her brother saying it's a pleasure "to shoot and knock out Jerry." There's also the sharp knife that Dieter makes as a gift for Anna, so that for a while, we're not quite sure what his intentions are, and we feel in ourselves the universal ambivalence toward the immigrant, the other.

The script includes many small, telling historical details as well as humorous passages: Fred's rage, for instance, when he learns the prisoners of war are getting candy bars while regular Americans can't get their hands on any sugar. Then there's Dieter's response when he's offered a platter of corn on the cob, which wasn't considered food for humans in Europe at the time: "Only cows and pigs and horses eat that."

The play's strongest achievement lies in the unsentimental, non-preachy message of tolerance and understanding that it weaves, a message that's particularly germane now, when sectarian violence is engulfing so much of the world. There are a few stumbles, though: Isabelle sometimes seems almost too saintly, and it's hard to understand her calm acceptance of Dieter and Anna's relationship. Even if she has no prejudice against Germans, surely she's afraid for her daughter's happiness if the two stay together in a tense, post-war climate. How will her Jerry-killing son react, for one thing? And Fred's anger when he learns what's been going on is too easily resolved -- especially given the ubiquitous presence of that gleaming knife. The acting is sometimes uneven, and the climactic final scenes are described at such a fast, frantic pace that I had trouble figuring out what had actually happened. But there's a solid performance from Andrew Uhlenhopp as Fred, Jack Wefso provides a grounded and effective Jim, and Kelly Uhlenhopp's luminous Isabelle lights up the entire production.

Beets, presented by Read and Rant Productions through February 8 at the Aurora Fox, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora. For ticket information, call 303-739-1970 or go to aurorafox.org.

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