When Abby Mann wrote Judgment At Nuremberg for its 1959 telecast on Playhouse 90, the Eisenhower administration set about to insure that the production would never see the airwaves. A teleplay about Nazi war criminals on trial for their part in the Holocaust could impede efforts to make Germany an ally in the then-raging Cold War, officials maintained. Ultimately, though, the show did go on, but not without one of the program’s sponsors, American Gas, Inc., insisting on muting the words “gas ovens.”

Not long afterwards, when Stanley Kramer set out to commit Judgment At Nuremberg to film, it was only Spencer Tracy’s agreement to star as Judge Dan Haywood that got the film made in face of studio resistance to dredging up old wounds and alienating our West German friends.

Precisely four decades after Kramer’s Oscar-winning film, Judgment At Nuremberg made its Broadway debut in Mann’s Tony and Drama Desk-nominated 2001 stage adaptation, and now, one half century after the movie’s release, West Of Broadway has brought this stirring courtroom drama to the Los Angeles area as a guest production at the Santa Monica Playhouse.

Under Diane Namm’s solid direction, Judgment At Nuremberg remains as powerful as ever, Mann’s script a textbook example of brilliantly even-handed writing, particularly as performed by the topnotch cast assembled for this ‘You, The Jury’ Production.

Mann’s superb script asks many questions and resists easy answers. Yes, defendant Judge Ernst Janning did pass sentences which ultimately resulted in genocide, but didn’t U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes himself condone efforts to “improve” the genetic composition of a population through forced sterilization? Yes, German citizens did most likely turn blind eyes at the atrocities they must have known were being perpetrated against Jews and other “undesirables,” but didn’t the rest of the world also know the intentions of the Third Reich? Didn’t they too hear the words of Hitler broadcast all over the world? And what about the responsibility of the Soviet Union, the Vatican, Churchill, and American industrialists in Adolph Hitler’s rise to power?

Though hard questions are posed, Mann in no way minimizes Nazi atrocities. Far from it. He even goes so far as to have prosecuting attorney Colonel Tad Parker show film footage of the infamous gas ovens, naked corpses in mass graves, a lampshade made of human skin, and human heads shrunk to one fifth their normal size, among other grisly images.

Nevertheless, in recreating one of thirteen Nuremberg trials of men whose cooperation was essential to the success of the Nazi conspiracy, Mann (to his infinite credit) makes each one of us ask the question, What would I have done had I been in the defendant’s shoes?

Top-billed Katharine Ross proves not only a box office draw, but one whose iconic film persona (Elaine in The Graduate, Etta Place in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid) makes Frau Bertholt, the widow of an executed German general and Judge Haywood’s window into the German soul, sympathetic from the start, giving a performance that earns applause. Ian Patrick Williams makes the part of Judge Haywood (immortalized on film by Spencer Tracy) subtly and brilliantly his own, no small task considering that Tracy received an Oscar nomination for his performance. Days Of Our Lives star Drake Hogestyn is memorable too as defendant Ernst Janning, particularly in a powerful eleventh hour monolog in which the Nazi judge admits, hauntingly, tellingly, that “what was going to be a passing phase had become a way of life.” Andy Hirsch and D. Kevin Kelly give perfectly pitched performances as defense attorney Oskar Rolfe and military prosecutor Colonel Parker, making for a pair of perfectly matched opponents. In the role which won Montgomery Clift his final Oscar nomination as a victim of forced sterilization, Barry Saltzman is heartbreaking, leaving an indelible impression and earning a round of spontaneous applause.

There are many fine supporting and cameo performances as well—Michael Merton as weaselly co-defendant Emil Hahn, Holger Moncada as Judge Haywood’s initial guide to life in Nuremberg, Lydia Muijen as a young woman accused of cavorting with an elderly Jewish man, Jodi Skeris as a witness to said misconduct, Betsy Baker as Frau Bertholt’s maid, John Zderko as a judge who, unlike Janning, resigned from the bench rather than wear the swastika, and Lisa Temple as a Nuremberg trial judge. Rafael J. Noblé is particularly fine as Judge Ives, though the casting of an African American in the role seems almost as historical implausible (particularly in a play about history) as is Temple’s female Judge Ken-turned-Kendra Ives. (Were there even any Kendras in 1947?) Also, since most of the cast who play Germans do so with standard American accents, Baker’s and Muijen’s European accents seem out of place.

Tana Roller’s courtroom set design is simple but efficient, slides projected on the upstage wall transforming it into various other locales, aided by R. Christopher Stokes’ subtly effective lighting design. (Hopefully a means can be found to project slides and film clips without the distraction of DVD player icons at the bottom of the screen.) Rosalie Alvarez’s costumes are for the most part just right for character and era. Stage manager Mike Shear’s sound design incorporates mood-setting background music from Schindler’s List, though repeating the identical passage during each of the many scene changes does get a tad monotonous.

Judgment At Nuremberg may be over fifty years old, and the events it depicts even farther in the past, yet neither Abby Mann’s writing nor the world we have lived in since its first TV broadcast make it seem even the slightest bit dated. Judgment At Nuremberg deserves to be seen now more than ever, and in West Of Broadway’s production, it is in highly capable hands.

Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth Street, Santa Monica.
–Steven Stanley
March 13, 2011

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