Brendan Ford and Frank Corrado. Photo: Aaron Rumley.

Sense of Decency

North Coast Repertory Theatre, Solana Beach CA

Written by:
Lynne Friedmann
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Following World War II, high-ranking Nazi Germany leaders were brought before the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg to answer for war crimes. Prior to appearing in court, the accused had to be certified as mentally competent to stand trial.

A young U.S. Army psychiatrist in charge of overseeing these critical assessments spent months conducting interviews with a score of defendants in their dingy detention cells. The doctor’s orders from his military superiors are explicit: Evaluate each man but do not offer any mental health treatment. But what if probing deeper could lead to an unprecedented understanding of the human mind. Might this suggest a “cure” and prevent similar catastrophic evil from being unleashed upon the world. And might a ground-breaking book to boot bring the psychiatrist professional and public acclaim. The high cost of unfettered ambition, for good or evil, lies at the heart of “Sense of Decency,” a world premiere of a North Coast Repertory Theatre commissioned play.

The drama is focused on Douglas McGlashan Kelley (Brendan Ford, who brings pathos to the role of the conflicted doctor) and his dealings with Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring (equal parts charm, manipulation and menace convincingly portrayed by Frank Corrado). In meetings – with varying degrees of civility – the men discuss the war and how the lengthy history of U.S. race discrimination contributed to the Nazi’s “Final Solution.” Along the way, there are Rorschach ink blots, the granting of favors and the crossing of ethical lines. There’s also Göring’s drug addiction (he consumes the painkiller paracodeine like breath mints). Each day ends with a transatlantic phone call between Kelley and wife, Dukie (Lucy Davenport) which over time reveals the extent of the emotional toll on their marriage. Göring’s eventual conviction and death do not bring closure to Kelley whose life continues to unravel.

It’s heavy going and a lot to pack into a 90-minute, one-act play, which leads to an uneven production. The series of conversations between Kelley and Dukie, for example, detracts from the main drama. Scenes that far better serve Davenport’s talent are when she portrays Göring’s wife, Emmy.

Marty Burnett’s set design encapsulates Göring’s reduced circumstances following his downfall from power and the wealthy lifestyle that went along with it. He awaits trial in a cell of water-stained concrete with a barred window, unmade cot, toilet and barely room for a couple of wooden chairs and tables. On either side of the stage, hinged panels swing open to reveal either Dukie Kelley in the couple’s California home or detainee Emmy Göring seated majestically upon a settee.

Costume design is by Elisa Benzoni, prop design by Audrey Casteris, projection design by Matt FitzGerald and co-lighting designer by Matt Novotny and Eric Montierth.

Perry Como crooning “We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way,” from “The Whiffenpoof Song,” welcomes the audience to the playhouse. The audience leaves the show hearing Mick Jagger’s mocking refrain “Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name,” from “Sympathy for the Devil.” Both are courtesy of sound designer Steven Leffue.

A running bit in the play is a card trick introduced by Kelley that Göring jokingly tries and fails to execute time and again. One day the Nazi performs the trick perfectly and he’s no longer laughing. It’s an unsettling sign that Herr Göring was holding the cards in this story all along.

By Lynne Friedmann

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