Playing for Time

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Scary, Brilliant, Wonderful

Playing for Time is not one of the Arthur Miller plays most people usually think of. All My Sons, or The Crucible, would be more familiar to most. It is a play, however, that I feel most theater people should become familiar with.

Playing for Time is based on the autobiography of the same name by Fania Fenelon, a famous French singer who was deported to Auchwitz during World War II. The play chronicles her time singing in the concentration camp's orchestra; and all the characters in it are based on real people she met there.

Miller's writing, as usual, is brilliant: He takes Fania's biography and turns it into a beautiful stage play (of course, we would not expect anything less of him). He gives us pain without obviously doing so: he just lets the conditions in which these women live be there without doing too much to draw attention to them. These women simply are in Auchwitz; and their attempts to deal with the situation makes the reality of the story incredibly powerful. Of course, the characters talk about the war and the victims of the Holocaust all the time; and the content of these scenes makes them dramatic enough without Miller adding anything to them. He just lets the drama be there, and this allowing makes it much more powerful than if he had done anything to underscore the reality of the play.

On top of Miller's beautiful writing, there are equally gorgeous characters. Fania in particular I loved, but I found the other characters equally fascinating. The crucible of Auchwitz makes some behave in ways I could not understand at all; and at the same time others go on with their lives as normally as they know how. Some turn into prostitutes, giving themselves to the Nazis in exchange for food; while others mend and wash what little clothing they are allowed to own. Fania/Miller's insights into the dynamic of the camp itself are also startling. Besides the split between Jews and Nazis, the camp encompasses all sorts: Poles; German Jews who get to keep their hair; Jews who act as the camp interpreters; and other "rankings" which underscore even more the horror of Auchwitz's very existence. To balance the point of view of the Nazis, which is evident in the reality in which these women live, there are those who believe just as strongly that the Nazis themselves are monsters. And in the middle of all of this is Fania, who sees the humanity in everyone'even Mandel, a Nazi in the SS who is in charge of all the women in the camp. Despite their extreme viewpoints, all of the characters are complex and fully rounded human beings: none of the women is a simple representative, as it were, of one point of view. Even Mandel saves a child at one point in the play.

The complexity of the situation, as well as the characters, makes this play wonderfully challenging for actors looking for meaty parts to work on. Playing for Time is a wonderful story. I am so glad to have read it. Now I have to look for more lesser-known plays by well-known playwrights.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 1:40 PM EDT | More details


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