Berlin Diary, Andrea Stolowitz’s engrossing and surprisingly funny theatrical detective story that opened Saturday at CoHo Theatre, is a play about memory and loss and the force of history, and about the limitations and possibilities of the theater itself. A deep delve into the Portland playwright’s family history and its intersection with traumatic events in public life, it’s prompted by the discovery in the U.S. National Holocaust Museum archives of a diary her Jewish great-grandfather, Dr. Max Cohnreich, kept in 1939, three years after he had escaped with his immediate family to New York as part of the larger family’s own mini-diaspora, leaving Berlin for Argentina, America, and elsewhere while the getting was still good.
After ignoring this evidence of a possibly altered reality for several years, Stolowitz decided to follow it into its murky past. She spent eight months in Berlin, running down clues hinted at in the diary, trying to understand what happened to her extended family, which lore insisted had been fortunate – everyone got out alive – and trying to discover, in the process, why her family seemed so distant and disassociated from one another, not at all the close happy bosom of a family that Stolowitz wished so fervently it were.
What she discovered through many often frustrating interviews and a mass of new information lodged free from city archives shook Stolowitz’s sense of what she thought she knew. It also shook her sense of what others might want to know. “I suppose what’s gone is gone,” an aunt sighs at one point, and yet Stolowitz’s growing conviction is that that’s not true: what’s past is crucial to the present and future; time moves and shapes itself in successive and coexisting tidal waves. Forgetting or denying is an evasion, a burial of the communal self, that broods and bruises.
The sheer amount of information overwhelmed even a writer as experienced as Stolowitz, the author of Ithaka, Antarktikos, Bad Family, and other well-received previous dramas: How ever was she going to translate all of this into a play? The answer, once it came, was both simple and inventive: Her story would become the story of the search for the story. And she would tell it not with the large cast her material might suggest but with just two actors, each representing (in addition to several characters who pass through the action) aspects of herself. Berlin Diary would be her growing, deepening, conversation with herself. The script’s development went through a lot of steps, including conversations with Portland director Jonathan Walters and work at Playa Artists Residency, the New Harmony Project in Indiana (where Portland’s Mead Hunter is artistic director), her German home ground at English Theatre Berlin, and elsewhere before having its world premiere last fall at English Theatre Berlin.
The innovative, process-driven Hand2Mouth theater, which is producing the show in Portland with CoHo Productions and where Walters is artistic director, proved a perfect partner for this approach. Walters, as director, has brought creatively active staging and crisp clarity to the performance of the script, with fine design and tech assistance from the likes of prop designer Drew Dannhorn (there are a lot of props), sound designer Roland Toledo, and composer Alicia Jo Rabins: the production is relatively low-cost, and yet it has an organic, fully furnished feel. And the two Stolowitz stand-in performers, Erin Leddy and Damon Kupper, are quite terrific, combining swift smart timing – no matter how abruptly the point of view shifts, they make it easy to follow – with the juice of character.
Berlin Diary surely is the first American play in history to include a poem in German about a bad case of hemmorhoids. (Let’s just repeat that, in case you skimmed over it: a poem in German about a bad case of hemmorhoids.) It is inordinately funny to hear Kupper recite it, gleefully, and inordinately sly that what seems like a comic throw-off moment returns, in Stolowitz’s elaborately interlocking writing, to take on deeper impact. Stolowitz deftly plants other comic moments, several of the richly mined squabbling-Jewish-family variety, but the play inevitably deepens and grows more serious as it moves along, engaging more fully with the matters of frightening and obscene import that lurk just outside the edges of the action. This show does not need to remind its audiences of the emboldened rise of anti-Semitism around the world and in the strident American political argument. It’s there, riding back fiercely into the present on one of those damnable historical waves.
I described Berlin Diary as a detective story, and it is, but not in a police procedural or cozy village murder mystery way. There is no villain to unveil, because we know from the outset who did it: This is a play about the fallout, down to contemporary times, of the obscenity that was National Socialism’s Final Solution, which in turn was the result of centuries of demonizing and ostracizing that came before it. The play is, rather, about the continuing effect of the Holocaust on individual lives; about the costs and difficulty of simply moving on from the memory and reality of this historic atrocity, which hangs in the air like an industrial poison, slowly burning lungs long after the smokestacks have been shut down.
Stolowitz votes for finding out. The past is the present is the future, Berlin Diary notes, and while it might be natural for generations closer to the trauma to turn away and reinvent, it is also natural for those younger to reinvestigate the connections and assess the damage that festers and passes on. At one point the play addresses the startling and adventurous return of young Jews from around the world, much to their families’ consternation, to Berlin: It’s where they feel at home, where their larger family is, even if that larger family consists of ghosts.
Berlin Diary, in the end, swipes at the mystery and conundrum of history and knowledge: Does confronting the past trap one inside old enmities, putting them on an endless replay loop, or does it free one from their hold? It’s an excellent, and very deep, question. Go see the play, then ask yourself again.
Berlin Diary continues through April 30 at CoHo Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.