When the curtain opens on the Alliance Theatre’s premiere production of “Sheltered,” this year’s winner of the company’s annual Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, you’d almost think you were in store for something akin to the sort of droll comedy of manners that Noel Coward used to concoct. (Actor’s Express is providing shelter for the show, as it were, while the Alliance’s regular Woodruff Arts Center venue is under renovation.)
The setting is 1939, in the living room (classily designed by Jack Magaw) of a “cosmopolitan” Philadelphia couple (chicly costumed by Nan Zabriskie), Leonard and Evelyn Kirsch (played by John Skelley and Amanda Drinkall). And much of the first act of Alix Sobler’s new play is fueled by a lot of sharply observed, crisply timed banter between them and their dinner guests for the evening, Martin and Roberta Bloom (Lee Osorio and Park Krausen), who may be considered more “gauche.”
They exchange domestic pleasantries, chitchat about everything from baseball to theater, even trade occasional barbs about their unruly children or some of their own Jewish traits. But the plot thickens and deepens, as the conversation gradually turns to current events — Hitler’s imminent assault on Europe, and the dire fate of so many Jews whose hopes of evacuating or immigrating have become scarcely possible.
Once Sobler reveals the ulterior motive and noble cause of her hosts, and under such serious circumstances, there ought to be no turning back. Indeed, the continually breezy overtones of “Sheltered” start to wear thin and feel heavy, if not immediately thereafter, then at least well before the halfway mark. In one instant, for example, Krausen’s Roberta is divulging dark secrets from the family closet; in the next, she’s playing flighty little tricks on her controlling, narrow-minded husband.
Also rather blatant and clumsy is the period play’s concerted effort to establish contemporary parallels to our current events. Speaking of displaced refugees, it isn’t enough to hear Osorio’s Martin say, “That’s their problem,” or, “Why worry about things you can’t control?” There’s more from him — about “putting America first” (as opposed to making it “great again”), and drawing a line on immigration (instead of building a wall).
“Sheltered” finally defines and delivers a thoughtful and heartfelt balance in its compelling and haunting second act. Leonard and Evelyn, now situated in a drab hotel room in Nazi-occupied Vienna, are negotiating with the Gestapo — and torn, reluctant parents — about the rescue and relocation of 50 Jewish children.
The husband and wife grapple with the painful reality of the process, the arbitrary choosing of which children to save and which to sacrifice. And the drama truly culminates in an emotional, beautifully orchestrated sequence between Drinkall and Lauren Boyd Lane (as a sadly conflicted Jewish mother), pondering the personal obligations of being a good parent, the spiritual relevance of being a good Jew, and the basic decency of doing the right thing as a human being.
Under the astute direction of Kimberly Senior (who staged the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Disgraced” on Broadway), their acting finesse essentially “turns (this) recipe into a meal,” as one Sobler character might note — albeit in a quip decidedly worthy of Coward.
Through March 25. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. $20-$57 ($10 for teens). Actor’s Express (at King Plow Arts Center), 887 W. Marietta St. NW, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.alliancetheatre.org.
Bottom line: Initially uneven but ultimately worthwhile.
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