At a time when the US government has been separating families at the border, All Our Children sends an impassioned message about the responsibility we share as a society to protect the most vulnerable among us. The play by Stephen Unwin is a work of fiction based on true events that took place in Germany between 1939 and 1941. In a lesser-known chapter from that time, the Nazis sent 100,000 mentally and physically impaired people to the gas chamber. It was felt that their deaths were efficient and even compassionate since these citizens could never properly contribute to the development of the Third Reich.
The intentionally claustrophobic piece is set entirely in the office of Victor Franz, a doctor whose clinic has been repurposed to quickly diagnose and dispatch the children under his care. Director Ethan McSweeny has staged the work in the round so that the audience encircles the doctor, witnessing the slow dismantling of the acceptance he has maintained of his role in these casual murders. The audience in turn is enveloped in a wall of file cabinets which contain the children’s medical files, a powerful image in the minimalist set by Lee Savage. Somber radio music, part of Lindsay Jones’s sound design, is used to effectively illustrate the passage of time. Simple period costumes by Tracy Christensen complete the look and tone, sending us back to that horrible period.
Karl Kenzler brings a combination of gruffness and vulnerability to his role of Dr. Franz as he ping-pongs between professional obligation and personal discomfort. But the actor cannot escape the circular emotional arc with which the character is burdened. Unwin is a seasoned director and teacher and this is his first time as playwright. The results are heartfelt but thinly executed. The other four characters are drawn in stark black or white, a weakness that often plagues stories that involve the Nazis. Furthermore, Franz’s tolerance for many of his encounters isn’t properly explained or realistically motivated.
Among Franz’s foils are his pious maid, Martha, (a fluttery, sweet Jennifer Dundas) a genuinely caring woman who tries to reconnect him with his sense of responsibility to heal and give comfort to his young patients. There is also Elizabetta (a too broad and harsh Tasha Lawrence) representing all the grieving mothers who love their children no matter their limitations. Most important is Bishop von Galen (the always excellent and engaging John Glover) who attempts to appeal to Franz’s long-lost soul. Counterbalancing them all is the clinic’s administrator, Eric (an appropriately oily Sam Lilja), who is not only a member of the SS, but also guilty of statutory rape. He’d be twirling his mustache if only he had one. It is only his embodiment of pure evil that eventually breaks through Franz’s trancelike state.
Recommended for ages 13 and older, All Our Children lacks nuance, but delivers on its examination of a particularly shameful practice. It is playing through May 12th in the versatile Black Box Theater at The Sheen Center, a project of the Archdiocese of New York. Runtime is a scant 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $65 and $80 for general admission and can be purchased at https://www.sheencenter.org/shows/allourchildren/2019-04-06/. For those wanting to delve deeper into the topic, post-performance talkbacks are scheduled throughout the run. The play is also accompanied by an exhibit in the Sheen Center gallery, Little Differences: The Portrayal of Children with DisABILITIES Throughout History.