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Theater Review:

"THE GREY ZONE" at A Red Orchid Theatre


When attempting to dramatize any aspect of an historic event as diabolical and unfathomable as the Holocaust, a playwright is bound to get plunged into a gray fog of incomprehensibility. But in his efforts to illustrate the fine line between what is morally right and wrong under the most dehumanizing conditions, playwright Tim Blake Nelson drops audiences into a deeper void of befuddlement and hopelessness.

His bleakest of bleak dramas, "The Grey Zone" – receiving its Chicago premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre – is based on the eye-witness accounts of a Hungarian-Jewish pathologist chosen by the notorious Dr. Joseph Mengele to conduct autopsies on concentration-camp victims used for human experiments.

Set in a Nazi death camp in 1944, Nelson’s drama focuses on the pathologist’s loose involvement in a planned revolt among Jewish workers forced to incinerate the remains of their own people who died in the gas chambers. In exchange for the brutal humiliation of being assigned to the Special Commando – or crematorium – Units, these equally expendable prisoners were fed and clothed.

In "The Grey Zone," Dr. Nyiszli’s ability to detach himself from the horrors around him in the name of medicine and survival is challenged when he is called in by the Special Commandos to help resuscitate a young woman who was not killed in the gas chamber. His cautious selling-his-soul-to-the-devil relationship with Nazi commander Muhsfeldt is threatened, as well as his life, when he and the prisoners try to protect the girl.

Unfortunately, what could have been an eviscerating story of humanity’s will to survive despite being thrust into a hell of unspeakable atrocities, becomes a confusing, soulless exercise in theatrical existentialism. Perhaps that’s Nelson’s point – the characters have been reduced to nothingness; they are surrounded by waste and decay. And when their revolt fails miserably, any hope for positive change is annihilated. So one can understand the empty, futile tone of the play.

But regardless of Nelson’s possible aim to mirror in his writing the chokingly hopeless desperation of his characters’ plights, he cannot sink so deep into a quagmire that the play loses its urgency or profundity. His utter deadness of tone has the very real potential of leaving viewers equally numbed.

In fact, his script is so vaguely written that it’s difficult to distinguish between characters and their motivations. They all sort of blur into grimy cogs in a wheel – no doubt, a key image for the playwright. But that doesn’t help make this story compelling. The play also does not further illuminate what most of us already know about the Holocaust. Instead it pares down those facts to even sketchier references.

A Red Orchid Theatre’s visceral staging of "The Grey Zone" – directed with Dado’s characteristic integrity and fearlessness – features an excellent cast (including Lance Baker, Andy Rothenberg and Mark Vallarta) whose skills are hindered by Nelson’s unfocused and monotonous script. Only Troy West’s staunchly torn Dr. Nyiszli has an opportunity to dissect his own paradoxical justifications.

So with such a hazy script, it’s left to the designers to immerse us in the gruesome inhumanity. And they achieve evocative wonders. Scenic designer Joey Wade recreates the puke-green-painted concrete walls and filthy, ash-stained windows of the crematorium – a stark contrast to the occasional flash of Muhsfeldt’s red arm band as he descends the creaky stairs outside the window. Andrew Meyers’ ghoulish lighting also appears to be flecked with the smoldering particles of human lives.

Sound designer Joseph Fosco creates moments of nauseating horror by combining a dog barking, women and children muttering and moaning, and gun shots being haphazardly fired. Even a scratchy German folk song in the distance seems to mock the surrounding carnage.

One can argue that the playwright employs a fragmented style to reflect the frayed nature of anonymous lives lost with such swiftness and icy lack of remorse. But if that were Nelson’s motive, the theater still demands more multilayered exploration even within those enigmatic blank spaces.

What comes closest to merging nihilism with hope in A Red Orchid’s production are the hooks on the theater’s walls (some with coats; some empty) surrounding the audience. A sign presciently reads: "Remember the number of your hook."•

"The Grey Zone" runs through January 27 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells. Tickets: $14-$20. Call 312-943-8722 or log onto

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