The horrors of the Nazi camp Theresienstadt in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II are examined anew in Nicholas Tolkien’s play “Terezin,” based in part on “The Terezin Diary of Gonda Redlich.” Tolkien, the great grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, the renowned author of “The Lord of the Rings,” has also directed the play. His approach is impressionistic rather than realistic in this presentation by the Steinberg Theatre Group.
At the core are two Jewish girls, Alexi (Natasa Petrovic) and her friend Violet (Sasha K. Gordon) who are sent to the camp, which the Nazis attempted to palm off as a showplace for how well people are treated even though Terezin is a hell hole. Alexi, distinguished by her excellence at playing the violin, is distraught when Violet disappears.
The Nazi commander, Karl Rahm, is effectively played by Michael Leigh Cook as a brute who tries to seem as if he has a touch of humanity but really is a committed Nazi and anti-Semite. He is impressed with Alexi’s skill as a violinist, and offers to find Violet if Alexi will each him to play the violin. There is no reason to trust him.
As an example of the impressionistic approach, a shawl is used to simulate playing the violin while we hear the accompanying music. That is one of the most successful touches.
But other examples of the approach are strained, such as dead characters seen crawling off stage, or coming back to life in the imagination of survivors. Such surrealism is intrusive and unconvincing, even muddling.
Admittedly, there is the old problem of conditions being so terrible in the camps that attempts at realism can never do justice to depicting the atrocities. Surrealism is sometimes considered a superior form of interpretation.
The ensemble cast excels in getting into the overall mood of the play. One effective scene occurs when inmates are supposed to act is if all is rosy when inspectors come to examine conditions.
However, as sincere as this effort to expose Terezin and the lethal anti-Semitism at the heart of murderous life there is, the style of the production sometimes impedes evoking emotions connected to what we see even though the horrors are forcefully referenced. At the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, 416 West 42nd Street. Reviewed June 22, 2017.