'Watch the Rhine,' a play leading up to WWII, is eerily unsettling and relevant

Dan Norman Photography

Dan Norman Photography

"Obviously," writes director Lisa Peterson in a program note for the Guthrie's production of Watch on the Rhine, "this is an incredibly timely play." It's sobering to think that's a true statement about an ominous drama set in America on the brink of World War II, but here we are.

Watch on the Rhine

Guthrie Theater

The characters doubtless wish they were in a light family comedy, which Lillian Hellman's 1941 play at first seems to be. After two decades in Europe, 41-year-old American Sara (Sarah Agnew) is bringing her German husband Kurt (Elijah Alexander) back to stay with her widowed mother Fanny (Caitlin O'Connell) in the Washington, D.C. house where she and her bachelor brother David (Hugh Kennedy) grew up.

Fanny and David are simultaneously hosting two other guests in their comfortable home, rendered in lavish detail by set designer Neil Patel. Thirty-something family friend Marthe (Kate Guentzel) is visiting with Teck (Jonathan Walker), a Romanian with whom she's in an obviously loveless marriage. Sparks are flying between Marthe and David, but much more substantive objects will fly when the Europeans' sympathies in the gathering global storm become clear.

Sara and Kurt have three children, all poised and humble, except for little Bodo's habit of showing off the technological curiosity he's learned from his engineer dad. ("The plumbing is such as you have never seen!" gushes the child, who like his older sister Babette is played by two young actors in alternating performances.) The Sound of Music springs to mind, both because of the accents and because that later musical is also about siblings forced to grow up early amidst the drums of war.

The garrulous Americans sober up — emotionally, if not literally — as they realize that the conflict in Europe has reached across the Atlantic. (It would be in the Pacific, just months after the play's premiere, when the United States would in fact be drawn into the war.) Peterson knows where the gravity lies here, and effectively captures the sinking feeling as Watch on the Rhine draws to its unsettling conclusion.

Much rests on the shoulders of Alexander and Walker; it becomes apparent in the first act that the latter actor can't summon much of a presence, but Alexander more than makes up for it with a deeply sorrowful and human performance. Hands twitching with anxiety, this beloved father communicates without histrionics that he's prepared to sacrifice everything for a cause he believes to be just.

Dan Norman Photography

Dan Norman Photography

Guentzel is both warm and sharp as Marthe, and we miss her when she disappears offstage — her character's absence during the play's climactic events are a flaw in an otherwise strong script. While O'Connell, Agnew, and Kennedy don't quite click as a family, that becomes less of a problem as the play's focus moves from their privileged lives to a more existential struggle. "I just don't like polite political conversations any more," says Sara. You may well know the feeling.