If you want to know what an actor thinks of their character, just examine the choices they make; something as insignificant as a pause mid-sentence or a slight turn of the head can tell you everything you need to know. But you’d be hard-pressed to find many such insights in director Louis Contey’s dutiful revival of “Hannah and Martin,” which takes famed journalist and philosopher Hannah Arendt and turns her into a docent, helpfully guiding us through the story of her life.
‘Hannah and Martin’
When: Through May 25
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission
In portraying Arendt, actress Christina Gorman is tasked with both narrating the play and playing its central figure. And while Gorman ably ushers the audience through the Jewish-German Arendt’s relationship with her mentor, German philosopher Martin Heidegger — a brilliant and pugnacious thinker seduced by the allure of Nazi nationalism — it’s like she’s marking time from scene to scene, hitting her historical or philosophical markers and then moving on. What good’s a point-of-view character who lacks a point of view?
As Heidegger, actor Lawrence Grimm gets the showier role. He is the titan of modern philosophy, the spiky iconoclast who calls his less capable students “clods of dirt” to their faces as they exit his classroom. And as Heidegger goes from arrogant professor to celebrated national figure to disgraced collaborator, Grimm makes hay. Piles of it.
Set over the course of decades, playwright Kate Fodor begins her story during the post-war Nuremberg trials, which Arendt is covering for the New Yorker. Having previously denounced Heidegger, Arendt has now written a letter advocating for his reinstatement — her reasons for doing so as yet unclear.
She reflects on their history together, first as professor and student, then as lovers— while still professor and student, it must be noted — and finally as colleagues in an increasingly Nazified Germany.
When Heidegger invites Arendt to come visit him during the trials, he finally explains — or tries to — the reason that this great man of ideas fell for the rhetoric of Adolf Hitler. Arendt has mostly chalked up Heidegger’s views to his fiercely pro-Nazi wife, Elfride (Cortney McKenna), but the man’s reasons are quite tragically his own.
Contey stages this production alley-style, highlighting the play’s knotty exchange of ideas, an element that Fodor mixes adroitly with the particulars of Heidegger and Arendt’s relationship. (It’s a fine play if a bit dry; the original 2004 production at Timeline Theatre won six Jeff awards.) The biggest complaint one could lodge against it is a suspicion that it’s pro-tobacco. Heidegger and Arendt both smoke voraciously and even the show’s opening image is a constellation of bright red cigarette tips lighting up in the darkness like watch fires.
Although the show is primarily concerned with the question of forgiveness, it wisely adheres to Heidegger’s early entreaty that questions are meant to be posed, yes, but not necessarily answered. Where this production falls flat — and it’s the whole thing, not just one performance — is in that narrow space between passing judgment and offering a point of view. Answers aren’t necessary, sure, but an opinion would be nice.
Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.