NEW YORK—No one’s life is worth more or less than any other’s is a statement that’s the central message of Stephen Unwin’s drama “All Our Children.” This quietly unnerving work is having its American premiere at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture.
It’s early January, 1941, and as Germany moves into the New Year, the majority of the country’s people seem to be roundly behind Adolph Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers (also known as the Nazi) Party. They’re convinced that any changes deemed necessary by those in charge are strictly for the greater good of the country.
Yet whispers of something darker can be heard in some quarters. They paint a picture not at all pretty, such as how children judged to be mentally disabled are being secretly murdered in the name of Aryan purity and the economic bottom line.
This is the situation that Dr. Victor Franz (Karl Kenzler) tries desperately to avoid facing. As the director of a clinic charged with caring for such children, it has fallen to him to sign the final orders that will send some of them to their deaths.
This policy is carried out under the approving eyes of Eric Schmidt (Sam Lilja), the clinic’s young deputy director, and proud Nazi Party member.
Dr. Franz, wanting nothing more than to stay out of trouble, has convinced himself that what he is doing makes sense for all concerned. More than a few of the children’s family members have been only too glad to turn their young charges over to the clinic, as it relieves them of their economic and emotional stress.
Now Dr. Franz has been informed that he is to meet with Bishop von Galen (John Glover). A well-respected member of the clergy, the bishop has begun to suspect what is happening to these children and has started to speak out against the practice. Dr. Franz has been charged with placating von Galen with facts and figures (that is, how the cost of caring for someone unable to look after themselves would be much better utilized elsewhere), so the bishop will stop questioning the new order of things.
Offering an ominous warning about the dangers of not questioning decisions made by the few for the supposed benefit of the many, “All Our Children” reveals, in its most chilling aspect, the matter-of-fact attitudes of the various characters.
This frame of mind applies not only to Dr. Franz but also to Martha (Jennifer Dundas), a maid at the clinic who sees herself as a good German citizen; and Elizabetta (Tasha Lawrence), a woman who comes to find out about her son, who is a patient at the clinic.
There’s also Martha’s daughter who, at age 15, believes there’s nothing wrong if she happens to get pregnant by her new admirer. She understands that having babies is the moral duty of every German woman of childbearing years.
There are also some rather interesting, almost throwaway lines in the show, which serve to show just how few worldwide were totally innocent regarding the events depicted.
In the end, it becomes clear that we must not only learn to question what those in power claim to be true, but also take an active stand against actions we believe to be wrong. For if we don’t, we ourselves become part of the problem.
While the bishop understands the importance of following his conscience, it’s something many of the other characters have yet to realize. And, ironically, even though von Galen is aghast at what is happening to Germany’s children, he’s loath to accuse his own superiors. He downplays Dr. Franz’s question regarding the Vatican’s position on what Germany is doing.
While the show has some excellent points to make, it would have worked better had the piece focused on von Galen. He is the only character in the play who actually lived, and who, according to the program notes, has a fascinating backstory.
However, the bishop doesn’t appear until more than two-thirds into the show, for a meeting with Dr. Franz that comes off as little more than overlong verbal volleying. The two men have staked out their positions long before they come face to face. Kenzler’s portrayal of Dr. Franz also comes off as far too low-key to be effective.
The rest of the casting is fine, with each of the actors playing their roles with the appropriate amount of gravitas, threat, and/or denial, but, as with Kenzler, none connect with the audience as deeply as they should.
The one exception occurs during Lawrence’s scene in which Elizabetta has a final encounter with Dr. Franz. Unfortunately, what happens ends up feeling rather out of place from what has come before, so that the scene seems tossed in to shake up the narrative rather than serve as an integral part of it.
Lee Savage’s set of Dr. Franz’s office, with what seems to be endless rows of filing cabinets stretching to the ceiling, each drawer containing, one assumes, the various patient histories, helps to bring forth the immensity of what is happening.
“All Our Children” is a play with quite a lot to say. Regrettably, the story feels more like an academic exercise on ethics and responsibility rather than a piece of theater.
‘All Our Children’
Sheen Center for Thought and Culture
18 Bleecker St.
Tickets: 212-925-2812 or SheenCenter.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: May 12
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org