UNION, NJ — Premiere Stages, the professional acting company in residence at Kean University, has resumed production after a two-year, pandemic-induced hiatus with the staging of “Year One,” a 90-minute one-act play by Erik Gernand. The play was directed by Glen Ridge resident John Wooten.
“Year One” is about the conflict within a multigenerational family living in Hitler’s Germany during 1933. The potential for good or evil of the dictator — his name is spoken only once in the play — is the question confronting the five characters, but the story is not pedantic. On the contrary, a little more historical perspective to explain why the characters react as they do would have been welcome.
The casting is good; one gets the feeling the characters are a caring unit. Wooten’s staging is deft, sharpening a family’s dissolution, from the start with the rise of Hitler’s popularity to an ending consummated by a hollow toast to the future.
The play begins with a brief introduction by Anna, a surgeon played by Kathy McCafferty, who relates her confusion and abhorrence when a patient refuses to be treated by a Jewish doctor, which she is not.
A blackout dissolves to a living room where Anna’s son, Peter, played by Eric Phelps, relaxes with his girlfriend, Claudia, played by Kaitlyn Lunardi. Peter has found a job as a printer’s apprentice and is happy. He will credit the Reich for making his employment possible. Seated nearby, quiet and aloof, is Peter’s Uncle Max, Anna’s brother and a World War I hero. Uncle Max is performed by Kevin Loreque.
A celebratory cake for Peter is brought to the table by his grandmother, Rosemary, played by Kate Kearney-Patch. But once it is learned it was made by a Jewish-owned bakery, Peter and Claudia balk and the cake is not cut. Anna objects, but to no avail.
Later, Rosemary tells Anna, her daughter-in-law, that she believes Max has stolen an heirloom watch from her. Anna protests but learns from Max this is true: It was stolen to finance an assassination attempt on Hitler at an upcoming rally. He tells his sister that concentration camps are being built.
“I have to do something for this country,” he explains. “I won’t stop until he’s dead.”
The drama continues to unfold from there.
The story is well-structured, with interaction between most characters in one-on-one scenes moving the plot forward.
But a scene between Max and Peter could have been developed further. In it, Peter, a fledgling Nazi, tells his uncle he knows he is a homosexual, but, he says, he’s not bothered by that. There’s unexplored empathy and familial attachment in this. After Peter runs out to somehow prevent a bombing planned by his uncle, Max is never mentioned again.
In a post-production talkback, playwright Gernand said this was because he didn’t want to divert the emotional thrust of the play. This is valid. But the audience had an emotional investment in Max. The play closes with the other four main characters on stage, but Max is absent.
Nonetheless, “Year One” is an entertaining and thought-provoking play. In a telephone interview, Wooten said it was important to tell a specific story about time and place.
“We didn’t want to put our foot on the pedal,” he said. “If someone leaves thinking about something else, that’s OK.”
“Year One” continues through Sept. 26. The Premiere Stages box office can be reached at 908-737-7469 or https://kean.universitytickets.com/w/event.aspx?SeriesID=5.
Photos Courtesy of Mike Peters