An intergenerational trek across Europe turns a good deal darker than the lighthearted family road trip it initially promises to be in the Open Fist Theatre Company’s World Premiere Walking To Buchenwald, the funny, impactful latest from the endlessly self-reinventing Tom Jacobson.

It takes a good deal of persuasion for 70someting Oklahoma Cityites Roger and Mildred (Ben Martin and Laura James) to agree to accompany their son Schiller (Christopher Cappiello) and his longtime boyfriend Arjay (Justin Huen) on an “important-wedding-anniversary” jaunt across England, France, and Germany, but Schiller’s arguments are persuasive, at least with his dad.

Not only will retired University drama professor Roger get to see European theater at its best, their final stop will allow him to explore his Germanic roots, and there’ll be plenty for his son (VP of Strategic Planning for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) and Arjay (who teaches at Pasadena’s Art Center College Of Design) to enjoy.

Now all they have to do is persuade insomnia-plagued curmudgeon Mildred to cast aside fears of leaving her safe Oklahoma nest and they can be off on their European safari.

She does of course eventually give in, and before you know it they’re touring London museums, chatting up a Cornwall gent with no more fondness for America’s “President Dickhead” than they, being refused service by a snooty French waiter, and getting insulted by a German student with communist leanings, Will Bradley playing all of the above characters, and more.

Then Mildred springs a bombshell on Schiller and Arjay, just the beginning of a steadily darkening comedy-drama that does indeed set all four of its protagonists on that titular stroll.

So different is Walking To Buchenwald from this past August’s The Devil’s Wife, Jacobson’s devilishly entertaining mix of chuckles and chills, that you’d almost swear they were written by two different playwrights, that is until you realized that from Bunbury to Ouroboros to The Friendly Hour to The Twentieth-Century Way to The Chinese Massacre: Annotated, Jacobson never ever repeats himself except in writing plays that get you talking while keeping you entertained along the way.

Schiller and Arjay may be a couple of contemporary gay male urbanites, but they so defy whatever images that may bring up that at half the performances, they’re their own lesbian doppelgangers (Mandy Schneider and Amielynn Abellera), and Abellera is set to take over for Huen the last week of the run and turn Schiller and Arjay hetero.

Roger and Mildred are no more stereotypically Midwestern than their offspring are stereotypically gay/lesbian/straight, a couple of decidedly Democrat Minnesota-to-Oklahoma transplants in a state filled with John Birchers, and just wait till Roger delivers as eloquent a compare-contrast monolog about the superiority of live theater over film and books as I’ve heard inside a theater or out.

America’s place in a world that no longer sees us as champions of justice, the bombs that decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Nazis’ gradual rise to power in pre-WWII Germany, and the death camps they built, Jacobson takes on all this and more while never forgetting that Walking To Buchenwald is the story of four people who could just as easily be you or I or family and friends we know.

Roderick Menzies directs with visual flair on Richard Hoover’s deliberately spare museum-evoking set, lit with equal artistry by Ellen Monocroussos, sound designer Peter Carlstedt’s ambient noises filling in “where are we now?” gaps to perfection. Kharen Zeunert’s character-appropriate (and in Bradley’s case character-distinguishing) costumes and Bruce Dickinson and Ina Shumaker’s occasional props are terrific too.

Performances are Grade-A all around, from Martin’s and James’s could-finish-each-other’s-sentences pair of fifty-year-marrieds to Cappiello’s and Huen’s equally believable pair of multifaceted modern gay men, and Bradley once again proves himself one of L.A.’s most gifted and charismatic young actors in nine distinctly delineated (and accented) roles.

Walking To Buchenwald is produced by Martha Demson. Deena Tovar is stage manager. Huen is lighting assistant.

A story told with humor, subtlety, and emotional impact featuring characters you and I can recognize and identify with in a world gone increasingly mad, Walking To Buchenwald makes for yet another Tom Jacobson winner.

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Open Fist Theatre Company @ Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village.

–Steven Stanley
October 5, 2017
Photos: Darrett Sanders

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