Firmament Stress: Way to Heaven is one hell of a must-see

Jason Cannon and Terry Meddows in New Jewish Theater’s Way to Heaven.
John Lamb
Jason Cannon and Terry Meddows in New Jewish Theater’s Way to Heaven.
A piercing whistle blows, so shrill that it assaults the very air. When that air is still again, a little girl with a yellow star stitched to the shoulder of her brown sweater reassures her doll, "Don't be scared." But it's hard not to be scared, even if you're only a spectator at this New Jewish Theatre production. Set in a German concentration camp during World War II, Juan Mayorga's Way to Heaven is a veritable treatise on fear. Everyone who inhabits or even visits this macabre site is frightened of something — of choices made and not made, of committing mistakes that will lead to death.

The play dramatizes a bizarre event that occurred at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, which was located in what is today the Czech Republic. For a brief time, the Nazis transformed Theresienstadt into a model locale, complete with landscaping and concerts — so much so that for a time the camp was said to be a "safe house" for Jewish intellectuals, artists and composers. After a visit in 1944, representatives of the Danish Red Cross wrote a glowing report about the humane treatment they saw. But it was all a monstrous deception. The camp functioned solely as a way station on the journey to Auschwitz, and the veneer of civility was thin indeed. Although there was no crematorium at Theresienstadt, more than 33,000 inmates died there of starvation and exposure.

Way to Heaven transports the viewer to unexpected places. By evening's end we have a fairly clear sense of the scope of the ruse that was perpetrated — even if it didn't play out as dramatized here — but perhaps even more so we are forced to consider the perverse ability of art to deceive. Shakespeare's Macbeth, as he nears the end of his tortured life, begins "to doubt the equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth." The lies that transpire in Way to Heaven are nothing less than fiendish.

The evening begins with a compelling monologue from the Red Cross representative (a gripping Jerry Vogel) who was so horribly duped. "If they had helped me," he pleads all these decades later, "a gesture, a sign." What his tortured soul is really looking for is a gesture or sign of forgiveness that will release him from his self-imposed purgatory.

Then we witness the kinds of staged scenes the Red Cross visitor saw, and his transgression comes into focus. The dialogue sounds contrived; the delivery, forced. What are we seeing here — bad actors, or bad acting? In Way to Heaven they're quite different commodities. If we cannot trust our own eyes and ears as we watch a fictional play in 2012, how can we judge those who were betrayed by their eyes and ears at the real camp?

We also spend considerable time with the erudite Commandant, who has masterminded the elaborate hoax. Once again the viewer is disoriented, because as portrayed by Jason Cannon under the direction of Doug Finlayson, this Commandant is unlike any Nazi we've seen on screen or stage. Forget the twisted evil of Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List or the chilling ruthlessness of Paul Scofield's art-loving colonel in The Train. The Commandant seems as well intentioned as the director of a community-theater play. There is more bluster than menace about him, yet we cannot forget that he is an agent of annihilation.

So the play is topsy-turvy. It's not what we're accustomed to seeing. Here in America, more often than not theater tends to resemble life. But in Way to Heaven life becomes theater. Such inversion forces new responses from its viewers. At evening's end you might not even be certain about how you feel toward this play, but you'll know you've never before seen anything quite like it.