The Holocaust has been the subject of so many movies, plays, and books that it may seem hard to find something new to say about it. Rosemary Frisino Toohey's "Under the Poplar Trees," an entry in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival now playing at the Fells Point Corner Theatre, doesn't overcome that challenge, but it does tell a familiar story more or less convincingly.
Following in the footsteps of Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful" and Manuel Puig's "Kiss of the Spider Woman," Toohey's play tests the notion that romantic optimism can overcome even the hell of a Nazi camp or junta prison. In the new play's opening scene, two inmates at the concentration camp in Dachau argue about the proper way to cope with the situation.
Meyer (Karim Zelenka) claims it is better to be realistic about the horrible conditions, while Josef (Justin Johnson) counters that it's more productive to seize on even the smallest positive signs and not allow the jailers to conquer your mind as well as your body. Meyer points out the electric fence where so many inmates have died; Josef points out the poplar trees that line the camp's main road.
In the second scene, a 91-year-old Meyer (Jeff Murray) sits at a dining room table in Brooklyn, bantering with his wife Clara (Annette Mooney Wasno) and trying to memorize Dante's "Inferno." Their grandson Aaron (Max Lanocha) comes by and explains that he's writing a newspaper story on Holocaust survivors. Will Meyer participate? No, the old man angrily responds, and when asked again, he throws his grandson out of the house.
As soon as this scene happens, we can see the outline for the rest of the play: Something awful happened to Meyer at Dachau; he doesn't want to talk about it, but the well-intentioned pleas of his wife and grandson will finally wear him down. When he finally discloses his secret, he will feel as if a burden has been lifted off his shoulders. And, indeed, the play proceeds like clockwork.
From that point, the production bounces between three different settings: the Brooklyn dining room, the Dachau barracks, and a bench in heaven where Josef consorts with his dead lover Desiree (Beth Amann). Information dribbles out as we get closer and closer to the big secret. There are three problems: The dribbling can be annoyingly repetitive, the heaven scenes are maudlin treacle, and the secret, when finally revealed, is underwhelming.
The play, though, has two saving graces: Toohey can write believable dialogue, and this production boasts three actors who can bring those words alive. As the older Meyer, the bald, bulky Murray has a glowering presence that would intimidate any grandson. But the actor gives us just enough glimpses of the caring husband and friend beneath the gruff exterior to make the man a fascinating study in self-sabotaging anger.
Even better is Wasno as Clara, the short, scurrying woman first presented as the stereotype of a Jewish grandmother pressing cake on her reluctant grandson. But the actress reveals a more complicated person behind the archetype, a woman who uses her self-effacing charm to manipulate her husband. To hear the old, married couple spar is one of the production's principal delights.
As Josef, Justin Johnson has the play's most challenging role. Like Benigni in "Life Is Beautiful" or William Hurt in the film version of "Kiss of the Spider Woman," Johnson must convince his skeptical prison-mates that by the sheer force of will and imagination, one can find joy and hope in even the worst environment. To be persuasive, he has to be a little bit crazy but not too crazy.
The wiry, excitable Johnson often—but not always—hits that sweet spot by widening his big eyes in wonder and spreading his long fingers as if to embrace the better world he can see in the future. The two scenes where he convinces the reluctant younger Meyer to join him in a song are the show's best.
To see the two men, one skinny, one stocky, in their striped, blood-and-grime-smeared uniforms leaning shoulder-to-shoulder as they sing an opera passage or a Yiddish love song near Dachau's rough-plywood bunk beds is to believe that maybe, just maybe, Josef is right. There will be plenty of opportunity to doubt him later.