By Oline H. Cogdill
Families are complicated, comprised of people who may have little in common but bloodlines, sometimes weighted down by secrets, lies, myths. Add to that mix a horrific event, so horrible it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around, and the complications grow. The family dynamics are the foundation of the deeply moving, highly effective The Berlin Diaries, receiving a first-rate production through Dec. 10 at Theatre Lab at Florida Atlantic University.
The Berlin Diaries is an autobiographical play written by Andrea Stolowitz, who began working on the piece several years ago while researching her family history in Berlin. The Berlin Diaries is making its world premiere at Theatre Lab, which is one of the theaters that helped developed the piece. The Berlin Diaries is part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere and will be independently produced at two other U.S. theaters in the coming months.
The Berlin Diaries revolves around the diary kept by Andrea Stolowitz’s great-grandfather, Max Cohnreich, a German Jew who wrote the journal for his descendants after escaping to New York City in 1939. A copy is sent to Andrea after her mother donates the diary to the United States Holocaust Museum Archives.
But Andrea doesn’t immediately look at the diary. Instead, it languishes, sealed in its original envelope, on a top shelf of her office, where it remains, even after she and her family eventually move from North Carolina to Portland, Ore., where she is a professor of theater. Eventually, she begins to read the diary, realizing this could be the basis of a play. This takes her down a rabbit hole of research, leading her to Berlin to research her genealogy to tell the story of her unknown ancestors and how they survived the Holocaust.
She learns her family’s story is fraught with complications. Those complications—differences in politics, religion, personal choices, plain neglect—have been the foundation of myriad movies, books and plays. But Andrea finds different reasons. The timeline moves from the past, the present and the future.
The Berlin Diaries is a fascinating piece of theater, brought to life by its two expert actors—Avi Hoffman and Niki Fridh and skillfully directed by Matt Stabile, producing artistic director of Theatre Lab.
During the approximately 95-minute play, Hoffman and Fridh play 14 characters each, including Max Cohnreich, Andrea Stolowitz, Andrea’s mother, Andrea’s uncle David, her cousin Lillian, her aunt Claire, the archivist at the Holocaust Museum, an old man at a synagogue, a cousin who immigrated to South Africa, two clerks, the Berlin archivists, Norbert who is visiting the German archives and Fr. Krautz who is the German archivist for restitution files.
Hoffman and Fridh tackle this exhausting cast of characters with verve, seamlessly moving in and out of the various characters across several locations including New York, Oregon, and Germany. At times, they simultaneously play the same character with one starting a sentence, the other finishing it. While this might sound confusing, Hoffman and Fridh make these moments are perfectly logical. The power of Stolowitz’s writing coupled with Stabile’s smart direction and the astute acting chops of Hoffman and Fridh make The Berlin Diaries a master class in acting. Hoffman and Fridh also tackle different accents, including various American and German speakers and a couple of elderly characters, guided by the expertise of dialect coach Kathryn L. Johnston.
Alyiece Moretto Watkins’ effective scenic design contains an array of clocks, photographs, a phonograph, antique suitcases, old-fashioned lamps and several delicate cups and creamers, all representing past lives with the stage framed in grey. Muted colors of Dawn C. Shamburger’s costumes for Hoffman and Fridh add to the tone as do Matt Corey’s sound and Eric Nelson’s lighting design. However, the projections showing excerpts from the diary are too far off the side, making them almost impossible to see, even from the second row, center, seats.
The Berlin Diaries fits well with Theatre Lab’s mission of producing new works.
The Berlin Diaries runs through Dec. 10 at Theatre Lab, 777 Glades Road, Florida Atlantic University campus, Boca Raton. Running time approximately 95 minutes without an intermission. Performances 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sundays. Additional performances may be added because the production’s opening was delayed a week. Tickets $35-$45. Call 561-297-6124 or visit www.fauevents.com