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Burning Coal Theatre Company continues its stellar 2008-09 season with Juan Mayorga’s Way to Heaven, a play not often seen. It is a Spanish look at a German injustice. Spain and South America seemed largely out of World War II, and the history we have come to learn of these events are rarely contributed to by the Spanish. It is this play by a Spanish playwright that makes Way to Heaven so astonishing. The subtlety, seeming ease, and audacity of which this play is possessed is staggering.
Mayorga takes a “rumor” circulated during World War II that the Jewish prisoners in concentration camps were well-looked-after and cared for. He then takes this rumor and realizes it; a Red Cross Rep goes to one of these “model” camps and sees for himself that the 100 or so prisoners live a simple but careful, quiet life in a quiet village that offers even a synagogue for their worship.
The Red Cross Representative (Steven Roten) is not fooled by what he sees, but he is also not convinced that there is anything worse behind the scenes. Mayorga uses Scene 1 as a prologue: The Red Cross man tells his tale, insinuates his suspicions, but leaves only suspecting he has been duped. He is not seen again.
We are therefore the next to be duped. We meet the Commandant of the camp (Francisco Reyes), who treats us much the same way he treats his Red Cross Rep. We are offered coffee; told we can take pictures; and introduced to the “Mayor” of the village (not, interestingly, called the “Camp”). We follow the same path to the station and train depot, along with our guides. Mayor Gottfried (Paul Paliyenko) regales us with how old the station clock is and how it was made by the Clockmaker of Nuremberg and has worked up until just recently.
Only now do things change. From this point forward, the play is about the recreation of this village for public view and how it will come about. As such, it is the idea of the Commandant that Gottfried shall become the prisoners’ “leader” and teach them what they will need to know to pull off such a monstrous lie. Painstakingly, the two, enemies and prisoners of each other, go slowly about turning the camp into the village, which shall be used to lie to all those who come to see what a concentration camp in Germany looks like.
Director Matthew Earnest uses seven ensemble players to represent the people who live in the village. They all have lines to recite; every visiting group hears the same play as enacted by these players. It is literally their livelihood; they all are painstakingly aware that any variation can wreak havoc on this fragile house of cards. Two boys (Alex Tobey and Daniel Sowell) play with a top, a pair of lovers (Jesus Martinez and Edna Lee Figueroa) share a bench in the park, and a young girl (Samantha Rahn) plays in the stream with her doll. Evan Close and Hilary Edwards complete the septet.
The play is overborne by the Commandant. Reyes is a jovial, thin, clean-shaven aristocratic man used to being obeyed. He never threatens; it is unnecessary. If this ploy is to be successful, then his “players” must succeed; if they do not, they will die.
This play is entirely too intimidating for any words. It is Nazi Germany at its most subtle and daring. We are left chilled and shaken, while the ruse continues unabated. This short and seemingly easy play makes us shudder in our warm clothes; that it was written in a different language entirely from English or German means that the shows spoken in Spanish, playing on alternate nights, must be even more powerful and terrifying.
A movable set rolled into the center of the Meymandi Theatre makes for a simple, leaf-strewn glade where this “Village” is set. Behind one door, where the commandant and the mayor work out the details of this phenomenal deceit, life seems too good. It is a cover-up of massive proportions that actually did work for a short period of time. But only because we, as people of our own ideals and foibles, wanted to believe the best and let ourselves be fooled by the thinnest of ruses. The Way to Heaven, given to us twice in the German (Himmelweg), is the name of a ramp that begins at the train station and ends a short distance away, at the infirmary. Trains continue to arrive, every day at 6 a.m.; yet there are never any passengers staying. The truth of this simple reality should have been enough to puncture such a fine veil of deceit.
As the mouthpiece of Germany, the Commandant makes many statements he parades as truths. He tells us “what the silence of peace will be like”; tells us that this spot in Germany is “the heart of Europe”; and regales us with stories about his 100-volume library, quoting grandly from his many volumes. He comes off as thin as does the ruse he has created. That being the case, asks Mayorga, why did it take us so long to see through them?
Way to Heaven is not an easy play to see. As is with monstrous wrong, we want to flee. But the actual creation of this lie that fooled the West for so long needs analysis, and it has taken the voice of a man well outside the history of Germany and World War II to make that analysis possible.