Refuge of Lies puts little dramatic meat on thematic bones
Written and directed by Ron Reed. A Pacific Theatre production. At Pacific Theatre on Saturday, April 10. Continues until May 1
Nazi hunters search for Nazis and sometimes find them. In Refuge of Lies, playwright Ron Reed searches for drama but it eludes him.
Reed took the inspiration for Refuge of Lies from the story of Jacob Luitjens, a professor of botany at UBC who was exposed as a Nazi collaborator in 1992. Like Luitjens, Reed’s protagonist Rudi Vanderwaal is a Dutch collaborator, a retired university professor, and a devout Mennonite. His wife, his friends, and his pastor all say that Rudi is a good man.
The play asks many questions. What’s to be gained from punishing a 72-year-old for crimes he committed a lifetime ago? Is it enough for a sinner to reconcile with God, or must he also pay a debt to society? What’s the difference between justice and revenge?
Unfortunately, Reed puts too little dramatic meat on these thematic bones. For starters, he doesn’t give us enough information about what Rudi did. In a flashback to World War II, we see him push a Jewish man’s head underwater to force him to reveal where he’s hiding other Jews. But we’ve never met the guy Rudi is torturing or the people that Rudi is trying to find, so they are abstract victims and Rudi’s act is an abstract sin. Frankly, in this age of large-scale, government-sanctioned torture, Rudi’s single offence feels relatively minor, especially since Reed presents the wartime Rudi as little more than a frightened boy who wants to please his anti-Semitic father. The real-life Luitjens was nicknamed the Terror of Roden, a moniker Reed’s protagonist clearly wouldn’t qualify for.
The argument that Rudi should be forgiven is as weak as the argument that he should be punished. Mostly, Rudi avoids responsibility, which makes it hard to entertain absolution.
Playwright Reed also directs, and he gets some nice work out of his actors. Howard Siegel delivers a subtly passionate performance as Simon Katzman, the guy who tracks Rudi down, and Anthony F. Ingram offers detailed and distinct portraits of two different pastors. Anna Hagan is effectively understated as Rudi’s wife, Netty, and Terence Kelly is always emotionally credible as Rudi. Hagan and Kelly are both part of this production’s multiparty pileup of Dutch accents, however. Kelly’s accent takes several side trips to Ireland.
Designer Lauchlin Johnston offers a handsome set, but he tries too hard to make the play’s multiple locations naturalistic, so the actors spend a lot of time futzing around with scene changes. Still, one element of the design is unconditionally inspired: the floor and walls of the set are covered with photographs, presumably of Dutch Jews.