Edith Stein is a hard show to pull off. Its protagonist is a fiery Jewish scholar who embarks on a harrowing journey of spiritual self-discovery. Its antagonist is a misogynistic Nazi sociopath whose only inclination seems to be self-advancement. For two hours, the characters search for spiritual peace against the backdrop of one of the most vile genocides in recent human history—the Holocaust.
Stylistically, Covenant’s performance is impressive. The action is staged to make the most of limited resources in space and equipment. The minimalistic red drapes constantly remind the audience that the Nazis’ total domination is imminent, while an upper screen displays a static image to signify changes in scene. A simple lighting pattern and stage block clearly establish the nuns’ confession grille. The story’s dreamlike jumps in time are supported by semi-surrealistic direction.
Another strength of the show is its authenticity. The costuming is accurate to the time and place, as well as visually interesting and thematically appropriate for the characters. Sensitive areas, like the Nazi salutations and pronunciation of various Hebrew phrases, were given careful attention to make the play believable. Though individual makeup work sometimes makes it hard to tell age differences, from a technical standpoint, the show is on point.
The play is full of heavy subject matter, which places a high demand on the actors. Indeed, when the show suffers, it is from pacing that is either too fast or too slow. As a character study, every scene in the show should engage the audience’s thought, which also made it unfortunate when, on the show’s opening nights, some scenes were recited more than acted and not all of the secondary characters were convincing.
Fortunately, the lead actors were excellent. Andrew Lupinek is genuinely creepy as Karl-Heinz, portraying a ghastly, up-and-coming Nazi that is fully animal and non-redemptive. Yet at no point does Lupinek let the character lose its ground in human drives; the genius of the resulting performance is a monster that represents the worst natural, unbridled potential in all of us.
Emma Shope’s Edith is multilayered and intriguing, as is fitting a character whose arc is open to different interpretations and who is written with the conflicting traits of a real person. Shope presents a full embodiment of the character, which is best revealed in moments of improvisation and acting when there is no dialogue. There is real subtlety in the distance between Edith Stein and her mother, the warring desires of Edith’s heart, and the development of her spirituality over the course of the play.
Honorable mention goes to newcomer Sammie Brown, who holds a commendable presence as the convent’s prioress--an important figure through many of the play’s most critical scenes.
Though the Gospel itself is never verbalized, Edith Stein is a play with beautiful, meaningful truths to find if you are prepared to search as Edith did. The many clashes between cultures and religious beliefs create a drama that is as tragic as our history, and accordingly, the play provides more of a challenge than a resolution. In finding ourselves void of understanding in Christian love and the Christian life, we are drawn toward the example and promises of Christ to find our spiritual peace. Edith Stein concludes this weekend with performances Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in Sanderson 215.