“Life is a pleasure. And pleasures, like life, are short.” – Jenny-Wanda Barkmann
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The quote above seems quite positive, and certainly harmless enough on the page by itself. It might be a simply sublime bit of insight if you didn’t know that the young woman who said it was an Aufseherinnen – a female guard in a Nazi concentration camp – known to prisoners as the “Beautiful Spectre.” She was hanged after World War II for her brutal treatment of camp inmates that included fatal beatings and the selection of women and children for the gas chambers at Stutthof SK-III near what is now Sztutowo, Poland. It’s not the words that matter, it’s the context in which those words were uttered (and of course, by whom).
The harrowing and evil context of the “Final Solution” frames a searing new drama written and directed by Kenley Smith called “Maidens.” This powerful play has been developed and given its artistically bountiful world premiere production at Darkhorse Theater by Tennessee Playwrights Studio. It may be set in the past, but as the playwright notes in the program, “…Fascism is here. It always has been, and it reveals itself when we allow a demagogue to stoke our fear and hatred. ‘Maidens,’ sadly, has become as current as it would have been in 1946.”
Smith, who relocated from Roanoke, Va., to the Music City in 2012, already has a well-earned reputation as a master of taut scripts with gripping stories that keep audiences talking long after the lights go up. I still have indelible memories of the terrific 2013 Playhouse Nashville production of his “Devil Sedan” (click here to read my review of that show). His own work is great, but no less impressive is his generosity and encouragement to other writers and artists in Nashville’s theater community. He is, as the old saying goes, “One of the angels that walks among us.”
That angel certainly knows how to write devils, including the sociopathic character of Jenny-Wanda Barkmann, played with terrifying matter-of-factness by the ever-wonderful Molly Breen. In “Maidens” he sees humanity in all its darkness and light and uses words like brushstrokes to paint a thought-provoking portrait.
The play opens to the strains of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” cantata (which references another conflict between Russia and Germany). Following a haunting introduction to our story from a 10-year-old boy named Jozef Wojehowicz (played with a beautiful air of innocence by Abby West) we see Barkmann and her fellow defendants as sentencing approaches in a 1946 Polish-Soviet tribunal. All are sentenced to death, but only Barkmann seems unfazed by the verdict; after all, life is short…
We are taken to the cells where Barkmann and Elisabeth Becker (an ultimately shocking portrayal of seeming sweetness turned scarily sour by Megan Dianne DeWald) are next-door neighbors awaiting their fates. Becker is the oil and to Barkmann’s vinegar, but in one respect they are very much alike – they are both masterful manipulators. The difference there is that Barkmann uses blackmail while Becker uses flattery as their weapons of choice.
Caught both literally and figuratively between these two women is Wojehowicz’s grown-up brother Lech (in the sure hands of the compelling Andy Kanies), a prison guard assigned to the condemned former Stutthof guards. He survived while the Germans were in charge and he plans to do the same with the Russians – “I had to live with it, so I did what I had to do. I did it then, and I do it now,” he says ruefully – and now he’s very defensive about the devil’s bargains he’s made in the name of survival.
Just as Smith’s script – aided by his excellent pacing as director – tears away at these character’s facades to reveal their individual truths the actors adroitly remove layer by layer until we see the awful toll hatred and fear take on people and nations. We achieve a revealing (though admittedly distressing) intimacy with the denizens of “Maidens” that’s as much about the actors’ talents and energies as it is about Smith’s storytelling gifts.
In addition to the fine acting of Breen, DeWald, Kanies and West there’s the extraordinary contribution of three players who speak volumes without uttering a single word. Tosha Marie Pendergrast, Preston Crowder and Becky Wahlstrom (Wahlstrom is also the show’s assistant director) as Figures 1, 2 and 3, respectively, convey multiple characters through movement and gestures with a minimum of added trappings – a woman’s scarf or a soldier’s “cover,” to give just two examples – while covered head-to-toe in black body stockings. Their exquisite expressiveness is mesmerizing.
The dialect work in “Maidens” is quite good, with DeWald and Nettie Kraft (German accents) as well as Kraft and Holly Shepherd Urbanowicz (Polish accents) deserving kudos for their coaching efforts. There may be nothing more distracting than bad accent work in a show; good accents complement other characterization components, so we suspend our disbelief more readily.
Sawyer Wallace’s stark and striking set design, complete with large cells for Barkmann and Becker, is also quite good, though in Darkhorse Theater’s black box those cells partially obstruct the sightlines for some audience members to the upstage platform where some pivotal playing occurs. Perhaps a thrust stage where that upstage action is moved downstage in front of those cells might possibly suit a future production.
Sound and video design (including some very disturbing but appropriate photo projections) by William Kyle Odum as well as Daniel DeVault’s lighting design set and maintain the right perspectives for this grim piece. Costume designer Colleen Garatoni captures the period from a fashion standpoint but also shows the effect of wartime life perfectly; clothes that once were fresh and colorful are now worn and faded. Makeup artist extraordinaire Shay Puffett works her cosmetic magic during the show to create visible scars on Barkmann following a violent scene (no spoilers here about that scene – go see it!). Maintaining the integrity of the prompt book (among I’m sure many other duties indispensable to this production) is stage manager Alexis LaVon.
The terrible cost of inhumanity is on intense and insightful display in “Maidens.” It’s not easy to watch, but of course it can’t be and shouldn’t be – it is, however, rewarding to audience members that take the journey with Tennessee Playwrights Studio. As Smith says on his web site, “I know that theatre can be fresh, provocative, incendiary, seditious, transgressive. It can be god—d interesting. That’s what I aspire to write.” Aspiration superbly accomplished once again, Mr. Smith.
Tennessee Playwrights Studio’s world premiere production of “Maidens” by Kenley Smith continues through July 13 at Darkhorse Theater (4610 Charlotte Ave.) Performances start at 7:30 PM today (Thursday, which is a Pay-What-You-Can performance), Friday and Saturday. The show runs about 90 minutes with no intermission; it contains profanity, sexuality and other adult content that makes it appropriate for mature audiences. Tickets ($15) for the remaining shows can be purchased online by clicking here.
(Thanks to TPS Marketing Intern Jacob Stenson)