In Nazi Germany, A Story of Love and Horror
When playwright Tania Wisbar was growing up, her mother shared little about her past in wartime Germany. When she did, “It was all about the art and the music and her writing … and coming from a very well-placed and highly respected film family,” said Wisbar, who was born in Germany in the 1930s and came to the United States as a girl.
Then, in 1999, a German professor visiting the U.S. brought Wisbar a 60-year-old document he had discovered in a Harvard University archive. In the 88-page manuscript, Wisbar’s mother, Eva Kroy Wisbar, who was Jewish, detailed her forbidden marriage to a German film director as the Nazis were coming to power. The manuscript held answers to many of the questions the playwright’s mother never answered before her 1984 death.
Now that document has become the inspiration for a play, “The Red Dress,” currently in its world premiere at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles.
Wisbar said the decision to write the play didn’t come easily. In fact, her initial reaction to the manuscript was fear. “It just shook me. Fortunately, it was in German, and my German reading is not that fluent, so it gave me a little buffer of time to do what I think many, many children of war, or observers of war or violence [would do]. You just go into a place of hiding.”
But Jonathan Sanger, a producer who has partnered with Wisbar on previous projects, encouraged her to write a play based on the story.
“I said ‘No, I can’t touch this. I don’t know these people.’ ” she recalled. “He said, ‘Think it over.’ So I did, for 15 years.”
The play she wrote spans the years 1924 to 1936 and begins in a badly defeated post-World War I Germany, falling apart under the burdens imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.
The story centers on Alexandra Schiele (Laura Ligouri), a wealthy movie star who meets Franz Weitrek (J.B. Waterman), a virtually homeless former serviceman and itinerant sketch artist. They fall in love and marry.
Using family connections, she helps him enter the film business and he becomes a successful director. Eventually, Franz makes films for the Nazis and becomes a favorite of propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. While Franz expresses sympathy for some of the Nazi ideology and policies, Alexandra detests them.
Events come to a head at an awards ceremony honoring Franz, when Alexandra shows up in a red dress (hence the title), defying the Nazi dress code requiring black-and-white attire. She is soon arrested, and a Gestapo officer produces proof that she is 1/8 Jewish — information unbeknownst to her. He forces the couple to divorce, in accordance with the Nuremberg Laws forbidding intermarriage between Germans and Jews.
Wisbar said that information she gathered from various sources provided sometimes conflicting information about her parents’ history, but she said her mother’s manuscript was the most reliable source. Most aspects of “The Red Dress” parallel real life. Unlike the character of Alexandra, however, her mother always knew she was fully Jewish, she said.
“I said ‘No, I can’t touch this. I don’t know these people.” – Playwright Tania Wisbar
An incident in the manuscript reveals her mother’s defiance. Wisbar said that her mother described attending a party where “two Nazis in uniforms sat at the table as if they owned it, and she just got into a rant and rave and finally said, ‘I won’t sit with Nazis,’ and walked out, followed by the Gestapo.”
In fact, Wisbar said, her mother was constantly followed by Gestapo officers and had to report to the Gestapo every month to be interrogated. And while her parents were ordered to divorce, they stayed married. After she, her sister and her mother left Germany for the U.S. in 1938, the Nazis issued a divorce decree dissolving her parents’ marriage.
Her father, Frank, remained in Germany, immigrating to America months after Eva and his daughters left. He subsequently married three more times.
Wisbar believes the main issue her play examines is the slow loss of civil liberties that may go unnoticed at first.
“Be very vigilant of your human rights,” she said, “and include everybody in that vigilance.”
“The Red Dress” runs Oct. 28–Nov. 19 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. For more information, visit odysseytheatre.com.