Let There Be Light

Some people believe that artists are uniquely sensitive to their times and that their work can serve as a kind of canary in the coal mine, warning of danger. Tony Kushner, author of the brilliant and much-acclaimed Angels in America, clearly wrote A Bright Room Called Day in a state of agitation. It's an early play, written before Angels and during the Reagan years. Kushner sensed the blot of fascism spreading across America, and he drew an analogy -- by no means original -- between 1930s Germany and Reagan's United States. Kushner has urged theater companies to adapt the play to reflect current realities as needed, and it has seen some revivals during the past few years.

Much of A Bright Room Called Day is set in 1932-33 and dramatizes Germany's descent into darkness. A young, contemporary woman, Zillah Katz, is our guide on this journey. She's become riveted by the face of a woman photographed at a Hitler rally, the only person in the picture whose hand isn't raised in a Nazi salute. Zillah strides about the stage, exhorting the audience to greater awareness ("Eat something indigestible before you go to bed, and listen to your nightmares"), expressing her own premonitions and reading aloud the results of her research: the maneuvers that brought Hitler to power, the moments when it seemed he would fail, his heart-sickening triumphs. All this frames a series of scenes featuring the woman in the photograph -- whose name, we learn, is Agnes -- and her friends. There's the homosexual anarchist, Baz; Husz, a Hungarian; Annabella, a dedicated Communist; and Paulinka, a film actress with no real ethics or beliefs. And there's Agnes herself, drawn to Communism's promise of justice, but petrified into inaction by her fear of the Nazis.

We live under a president whose elections were questionable; who started an unnecessary war and used it to hack away at civil rights; who has created an international system of secret prisons and torture; who seems determined to expand the power of the presidency beyond the reach of law. And when an artist of Kushner's stature sounds the alarm, we ought to listen.

The trouble is that Bright Room doesn't entirely work as a play. It's interesting. Some of the scenes are powerful. There's wonderful language, and Kushner cogently illustrates the ways in which the left of any age tends to defeat itself: divisiveness, hairsplitting, pedanticism and doubt, as some of the characters balance rumors of Stalin's atrocities against their awareness that Communism appears to be the only viable force opposing Hitler.

But there's not really an idea or analogy in Bright Room that most thinking people haven't already entertained. And beyond a reference to Hurricane Katrina and a gibe about the president's ability to read, the script never really explains why the times we live in are so threatening -- which shouldn't be hard to do. Sometimes the characters come rivetingly alive -- as when Zillah humorously dissects her own paranoia or Paulinka describes an encounter with a satanic black poodle -- but for the most part, they serve only as mouthpieces.

You expect unreal elements from the creator of Angels, and sure enough, the devil makes an appearance here. But he doesn't add much. A woman known as Die Alte -- the Old One -- wanders on periodically. She may, like Brecht's Mother Courage, represent war itself, continually hungry and feeding even while others starve. She may represent war's victims. Perhaps she's a mirror of what Agnes could become (there are suggestions throughout that Agnes, Zillah and Die Alte are facets, or perhaps alternative versions, of the same self). But she feels less like an artistic ambiguity than a concept insufficiently worked out.

Nonetheless, this is an important play, and one that should be seen. Even when the ideas aren't new, it forces us to look at them more closely, raising haunting questions. My own family is Jewish, and my mother escaped from occupied Europe in 1939. I have asked myself over and over again if I would know, as she did, when it was time to flee. (I'm hardly alone in this. So many Americans thought about emigrating after the 2004 election that a Canadian communications company launched a welcoming website.) Another huge question: What would it have taken to stop Hitler, and who among us would have been capable of even the smallest act of courage in 1930s Germany? In the play, Agnes is unable to act. Zillah hungrily seeks danger -- but then, danger is still hypothetical for her. Baz has an opportunity to kill Hitler and is unable to take it. Kushner's sole hero is artist and Communist organizer Annabella (strongly played by Denise Burson Freestone), with her futile posters and core-deep convictions.

Director Peter Anthony has created an elegant, workable, semi-abstract set, and he backs the action with effectively somber music. All of the performances, even those in small roles, are excellent. Heather Lawrence-Wescott gives Zillah an edgy energy, Sydney Parks is a touching Agnes, and Rebecca Spafford makes a brightly and convincingly shallow Paulinka.

Despite its imperfections, something about the play stayed with me for several days afterward, roiling my sleep and -- without the help of anything indigestible -- populating it with nightmares.