It comes as a surprise to read, in the program of “Year One” — which Premiere Stages is presenting at Kean University in Union through Sept. 26, in its world premiere — that Erik Gernand began writing this play in 2011. That’s because it seems so perfectly suited to the current moment in history that one might assume it had been inspired by more recent events.
“Year One,” in fact, evokes some of the worst aspects of modern life so effectively that it’s painful to watch. Though not devoid of humor, it’s a heartbreaker. It’s one of those rare plays that not only tackles big, important, difficult issues, but does so in a consistently absorbing way.
It’s set in Germany, in 1933. Yes, you guessed it: Nazism is rearing its ugly head, and ordinary people are either going along with it or trying to figure out how to resist. One never sees politicians in “Year One”; we view history through the point of view of one more-or-less ordinary family.
Anna (Kathy McCafferty) is the central character, a middle-aged doctor and a widow who can’t stand Hitler and lets other family members know exactly where she stands. Her 18-year-old son Peter (Eric Phelps) seems like a decent, easy-going guy, happy to have recently landed his first job, but his girlfriend Claudia (Kaitlyn Lunardi) comes from an ardently pro-Hitler family. Uh-oh.
Anna’s mother-in-law Rosemary (Kate Kearney-Patch) dotes on her grandson Peter and seems content to follow the path of least resistance: She doesn’t like Hitler but isn’t up to fighting against his rise, either. She’ll hold her nose and hope for the best.
The fifth character, Anna’s brother Max (Kevin Loreque), joins Anna on the fervently anti-Hitler side. But he may be stealing from the family (an expensive watch has gone missing) and is up to who-knows-what when he slips out of the house, late at night, and doesn’t return until early the next morning.
Gernand provides historical context by having family members talk about their past. These people suffered in World War I. Anna’s husband was a soldier who got killed; Max served in the German army as well. Peter and Claudia grew up in Germany’s difficult post-war years. For them, especially, Hitler’s allure is his promise that he will Make Germany Great Again (no, Gernand doesn’t use that phrase, but the parallel is clear) for “true Germans,” like them.
Anna sees right through him, but — to her horror — Claudia and possibly Peter see no reason not to buy into his vision.
With our own country as divided as it is right now, many of us have had the experience of looking on, in consternation, as a family member or friend who we have always thought of as sensible and moral attests to beliefs that we see as crazy and/or immoral, and sticks to them despite our best arguments. That is what “Year One” is all about.
How can Claudia be so sweet and polite — and also lovingly, whole-heartedly salute Hitler? Why can’t Rosemary grow a backbone? Can Anna deal with it all (the play begins with her account of dealing with an antisemitic patient; the incident really shook her) without breaking down herself?
I won’t reveal the ending, but will say that Gernand doesn’t sugarcoat anything or pull his punches.
Well acted and well directed (by Premiere Stages’ producing artistic director John J. Wooten), “Year One” represents a striking return to indoor productions by Premiere Stages, which managed to do important, ambitious work, even last fall (click here for my review of Premiere’s October 2020 outdoor production of “Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!”).
Personally, I can say that through the pandemic, I’ve wanted more live theater than I’ve been able to get. This play reminded me that I don’t just want it, but need it — and think we all do — as well.
Premiere Stages is presenting “Year One” at The Bauer Boucher Theatre Center at Kean University in Union. Remaining performances will take place Sept. 16-18 and 23-25 at 8 p.m. and Sept. 18-19 and 25-26 at 3 p.m. A talkback will follow the Sept. 19 performance. Visit premierestagesatkean.com.
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