Dear Tasha Lawrence: A Letter About ‘All Our Children’

You have a tough scene late in the play. You probably know it -- what you do at the end of it.

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All Our Children
Karl Kenzler and Tasha Lawrence in "All Our Children." Photos: Maria Baranova.

Dear Tasha Lawrence:

I saw a press preview of All Our Children, the play by Stephen Unwin in which you’re appearing, running Off-Broadway at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture (18 Bleecker St.) through May 12, and I wanted to write to you about it. I’m specifically interested in a tough and shocking moment late in the play, set in 1941 Germany. You probably know the scene — or at least what you do at the end of it. Please indulge me while I bring everyone along to this particular moment.

In All Our Children, you play the supporting but crucial role of Elizabetta, the mother of a disabled son sent to the psychiatric clinic where the play takes place — and where, unbeknownst to her, her son is the victim of a eugenics program run by the Nazis. The specific events in Unwin’s play may be fictional, but the program — called Aktion T4 — was real. It murdered some 200,000 minors and sterilized tens of thousands more who were deemed to be “lives unworthy of life.”

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All Our Children
Jennifer Dundas as Martha, a maid.

You have two scenes. In the first, Elizabetta visits the office of the clinic’s director, a doctor named Victor Franz (Karl Kenzler). You bear gifts and you want, if it could be possible, to see your son — it has been over a year since his confinement. With one child locked away in the clinic and another fighting in the war, she’s alone and working a menial job. Sorry, can’t do, replies Franz, affecting a dour look — regulations, you know. We, the audience, have spent enough time with the doctor to know this is a lie; we also know he’s battling his conscience over the role of the clinic in Aktion T4 and his complicity in determining, among the physically and mentally challenged residents, who shall and shall not survive.

Of the play’s various scenes — including the climactic one in which the Bishop of Münster, Clemens von Galen (powerful, pitch-perfect John Glover), confronts Dr. Franz — yours are the most nakedly and unreservedly emotional: a terrified single mother simply longing to see, hold and love her boy. The black-box in the Sheen Center leaves neither the actors nor the audience much comfortable distance: it’s barely the size of a living room. And so the director of All Our Children, Ethan McSweeny, stages your first scene to keep you and Dr. Franz circling each other. If it’s not quite a sparring match — Dr. Franz wields all the power, holds all the cards — we can’t avert our eyes from a mother whose protective instincts have been aroused.

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All Our Children
John Glover, as Bishop Clemens von Galen, with Dundas.

Yet it’s the second scene of All Our Children that ignited my interest in writing this letter. Elizabetta returns — she received a letter in the mail to inform her that her son is dead. Didn’t she just have a visit with the doctor? Didn’t he know? Surely, yes, he knew! Bursting into the doctor’s office — defying the orders of his devout, ignorant maid, Martha (superb Jennifer Dundas), to stay out — Elizabetta is a study in unfathomable grief and unrestrained fury. She wants answers. Why didn’t Dr. Franz tell her that her son was dead when she stood there pleading and begging, begging and pleading, not so long ago? (The play’s sense of timeframe can be annoyingly vague.) Poor Elizabetta: Dr. Franz reminds and reminds her that he’s terrible with names, but what is really terrible at is lying. This woman is not powerful, she’s certainly not well educated, nor is she rich, she’s merely a widow — but powered by confusion about the doctor’s betrayal, Elizabetta also isn’t stupid, and this, your second scene, appears poised to explode. What can Dr. Franz say or do? Sure, he can retrieve the pertinent file folder from a cabinet, which he does, and he can peer into it with the most gutless and cursory of glances, which he does, and he can casually offer Elizabetta a fraudulent medical diagnosis to explain the death of her child, but why should she believe him? Do we? You can read on Kenzler’s face that Dr. Franz hardly believes his own words. The boy is dead. The deed is done. There is no body. There will be, horrifyingly, no ashes. The sad life of her epileptic boy was deemed lebensunwertes leben. What can Elizabetta say or do?

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All Our Children
Karl Kenzler as Dr. Franz.

And here, playwright Unwin gives Elizabetta the words. They come after she spits on the doctor — the least that he deserves:

“Fuck you, doctor.”

“Fuck you.”

“Fuck you.”

Elizabetta is ushered from the scene by Martha in a mass of heated, heaving throbs of emotion. Moments later, von Galen arrives, and the final 20 or so minutes of the play is consumed with an imagined meeting between the fictional doctor and the real bishop, known as the “Lion of Münster,” whose campaign of Christian conscience against Hitler and the Nazis made him one of the most vexing and vulnerable figures of the Third Reich.

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Except that part of me remained with Elizabetta. And not because I was offended by her use of the word “fuck”: my life is more complete today, having researched some delightful German equivalents. Rather, the words wrested me out of the play, and I’m struggling to understand why. Part of the reason that I think I was shuttled from the world of the play is because McSweeny’s production does such a fine job of shuttling me into the world of 1941 Germany — or what I might imagine it to be. If Lee Savage’s set is dominated by imposing towers of stacked upstage file cabinets — symbols a bit on the nose — Tracy Christensen’s costumes are period-accurate and Scott Bolman’s subtle lighting seemed to channel the hazy look of a German winter.

All Our Children
Sam Lilja as Eric.

As an actor, do you think that Elizabetta would have said “Fuck you!” once — let alone three times — to this doctor of death, to this monster whose decisions about other humans resulted in the murder of her disabled child?

I also ask because of the fifth character in All Our Children. His name is Eric (terrifyingly smug Sam Lilja), and he is Dr. Franz’s deputy. In his early 20s, he’s at best a few years older than Elizabetta’s son; he’s the most unquestioningly and ardently pro-Nazi character on stage. Elizabetta’s interactions with him are minimal, but if we can detect Eric’s menace, one supposes that she might have felt it, too. Indeed, we learn that Eric isn’t above employing violence to get what he wants, and amenable, under the right circumstances, to throwing the doctor under the bus, or the Panzer, or into a gas chamber, or whatever helps the Führer. Would Elizabetta — despite her grief, outrage and shock — have really opened up such a mouth?

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The default response here may be the right one: the playwright writes the play and the actor performs it as written, and/or as McSweeny directs it. I’ve written plays myself, and I respect the awkwardness of my question. My purpose isn’t to offer a protocol challenge so much as to ask how you approach those “Fuck you” moments. Your performance is greatly moving, and while I respect that Glover will be the focus of many reviews (and he is quite galvanizing as the Bishop), you and Elizabetta also deserve your due.

It’s easy to understand why All Our Children, which opened at Jermyn Street Theatre in London in 2017, has crossed to our shores. It’s timely and, at 90 minutes, written tautly. Maybe Elizabetta has to spit on Dr. Franz and maybe she must say “Fuck you” because we need her to voice our terror — especially in an era in which our own amoral government is slamming innocent children into cages, a proto-eugenics policy if ever there was one.

Your work was fearless, insightful and unflinching. No easy alchemy, that.

Sincerely,

Leonard Jacobs