"You worry me, Doctor Franz,” says a young SS officer at a Nazi-era clinic for special needs children in Stephen Unwin’s play
“All Our Children.”
“This is a sacred task, and we need people with dedication—fanatics, as you call us.”
“I used to heal children; I used to try to help them heal,” the doctor protests. The young man reminds the doctor that his own security depends upon cooperation with a program to exterminate the severely disabled people in his care.
Unwin’s story unravels over the course of a single day in the life of the character Victor Franz, founding doctor of a clinic for disabled children, who finds himself coerced by the Nazis into signing death sentences for his patients. In addition to contending with the pushy young SS officer, Dr. Franz spends his day interacting with a maid who keeps his heart open to the good, is confronted by the mother of a child entrusted to his care and anticipates with dread the arrival of Bishop Clemens von Galen, who opposes the Nazi agenda.
Bishop von Galen is the one character in the play based on an historical figure. Called the “Lion of Munster” for his courage in standing up to the Nazis, Bishop von Galen was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
“All Our Children” marks Unwin’s debut as a playwright. He is a longtime British theater director who directed the play in its initial run in London’s West End but now hands that role over to Ethan McSweeny for the play’s U.S. premiere at the Sheen Center’s Black Box Theater in lower Manhattan, where it will run from April 14 until May 12.
The Sheen’s Black Box, with its intimate setting and theater-in-the-round seating, presents a promising venue for McSweeny’s take on Unwin’s work.
“I was just sitting down there in a technical rehearsal,” McSweeny remarked a week before the premiere, “and I realized that the stage is a 20-by-20 foot square, and I think those are the exact dimensions of a traditional boxing ring. Talk about a pugilistic metaphor for a play where ideas are in combat.”
McSweeny describes the play as a “think piece” due to its cerebral and conversational approach and notes the influences of Henrik Ibsen and Bertolt Brecht on Unwin’s work. He also notes this production’s ability to highlight those influences due to the venue, saying, “In many ways, I think, if you look at the design, an astute observer will go, ‘Ah, the middle of the space in the Sheen Center’s Black Box is an Ibsen play and the surround is a Brecht play.’ And I leave it to those who come to see it to figure out what that means.”
Regarding his desire to bring “All Our Children” to an American audience, McSweeny says, “What attracted me to the play in the first place is that it’s a real battle of ideas, and I appreciate that even Stephen, who has an adult special needs child himself and clearly has a political point of view, actually gives pretty reasonable air to all of the different points of view around this and asks us as an audience to really think.”
Asked to reflect on the aspects of his personal life that inspired the writing of his play, Unwin says, “The three elements that go into the play are that my mom was born Jewish in Nazi Germany. Her family escaped when she was 3 years old. So the Holocaust is somewhere in my background. My father was Catholic, and though I am not Catholic anymore, I was brought up in Catholicism in Britain…And third, I have a profoundly disabled son, who is now 22—no speech, epilepsy and severe learning disabilities. So, I am intrigued and challenged and campaign for the rights and dignity and future and support of people like my son. And I was very struck discovering the story of Bishop von Galen, who was a conservative Catholic bishop in Germany, who the Nazis hailed and thought he was one of them in 1933 because he was a nationalist and a conservative. But astonishingly and brilliantly, he raised his voice in public against the murder of the disabled.”
At an hour and a half long and with no intermission, “All Our Children” relies on a five-person cast to capture the tension in every beat of Unwin’s play and to allow that tension to unfurl before the audience, raising questions that invite each person to seek their own answers.
The actors in this production—Karl Kenzler, John Glover, Jennifer Dundas, Tasha Lawrence and Sam Lilja—possess the talent to bring Unwin’s vision to life. Their collaboration over the next month is sure to stand as a reminder of the power of theater to distill ideas down to their essence and the importance of art that stands up for human dignity.
This type of “think piece” relies on an audience willing to engage the ideas in a story for purposes of reflection and growth. People who care about the rights of the vulnerable should hope this production finds that audience. They are also most capable of being that audience, of taking up the challenge presented by this play and working together to build a more merciful society.