In one of the first scenes of The Action Against Sol Schumann, a flack for the Reagan White House does damage control for the Gipper’s controversial visit to a German cemetery in Bitburg by pointing out that only a small percentage of the people buried there are SS soldiers. Aaron Schumann, the confrontational son of the eponymous character, responds that Reagan can spend 98 seconds honoring the deceased Germans as long as he also “spits for two” seconds. That scene, like so many others in the play, is likely to offend almost everyone: Reagan’s detractors will find it too balanced to be damning while ardent conservatives will be upset at the dramatization of one of their hero’s most embarrassing moments. But the ability to flip a coin and make sure that it lands on both sides of the issue makes playwright Jeffrey Sweet the right theatrical magician to take on the true story of the effort to deport Jacob Tannenbaum, a devout Jew and Nazi collaborator. (“Sol Schumann” is a fictionalized version of Tannenbaum.)
The play is hardly about its title character at all; rather, it concerns both the moral support and condemnation that surrounds him. At the center of this are Schumann’s sons Aaron (Douglas Dickerman) and Michael (Nathan M. White). The activist Aaron has spent his life pursuing people Nazi war ciminals; a leftist writer chronicles his globe-hopping efforts in regular columns in various newspapers and magazines while a daughter of a Holocaust survivor joins him on most of these missions and offers legal representation. The revelation that his father was a kapo known as “the ogre of Ordenhaupt” causes Aaron and his confidantes to reevaluate their pieties. The assimilated Michael, never a Nazi hunter, only thinks of how he can help keep the family together.
The playwright’s insights are varied, strong, and unsentimental. For example, one scene shows a prominent leader in the Jewish community trying to convince a judge to drop his case against Schumann, even though he calls the man “a monster,” because he believes that media attention will reflect badly on the Jewish people and, by extension, on Israel — a state founded as a refuge for Jews against genocide. If Jews can kill other Jews, the argument goes, what’s the value of a state based on ethnic nationalism? This may be the playwright’s conscience talking, but the very fact that Sweet wrote The Action Against Sol Schumann shows how misguided he believes the argument to be.
Sweet understands the concept of moral paradox and gives all of his characters interesting conflicts. The writer Diane (Catherine Lynn Dowling) forms an attachment with Aaron that prevents her from exploring the Schumann case as deeply as her profession mandates. When lawyer Leah (Susan O’Connor) takes up Sol Schumann’s case, she’s torn between her legal principles and her obligations to her survivor parents — as well as to her sometime lover, Aaron. Ambivalent but never fickle, Sweet makes the case for both swift justice and forgiveness only to repudiate both options. Yet the survivors who want nothing more than to kill or deport the protagonist aren’t “Shylocked”; that’s to say, their quest for justice is never presented as unreasonable.
Unfortunately, sentimental acting and directing often get in the way of the straightforward writing. Director Amy Feinberg has some cast members remain on stage to observe the proceedings even when they aren’t in particular scenes, and many of them gaze compassionately at the main character during his more troubling moments. The effect is probably the opposite of what was intended: The audience is less inclined to pity Schumann when outsiders regard him so kindly. The performances are uneven but the better actors deliver the material with a hard edge. Among the standouts are Herbert Rubens as Sol, Douglas Dickerman as Aaron, Susan O’Connor as Leah, and Catherine Lynn Dowling as Diane.
Moral people do not need to be told how to feel about the Shoah; rather, a play on the subject should surprise audiences if it is to resonate. When the production doesn’t fight against it, The Action Against Sol Schumann presents familiar issues in inventive and powerful ways.