When the AP releases an interview with the “president” that’s so incoherent it makes you feel more confident in a toddler’s ability to verbalize thought, when a lady Donald Trump is a contender to lead France, and when each five-minute NPR hourly news summary seems to sow fresh hell into your day, it’s hard to see a play like Berlin Diary and not get vaguely panicky, much less review it fairly.
I’m going to do my best though, because you should see it. Berlin Diary, presented by Hand2Mouth and CoHo Productions and directed by Hand2Mouth’s Jonathan Walters, is the self-referential story from Oregon playwright Andrea Stolowitz, who delved into Berlin’s complicated history and tried to write a play about her family in the process (yes, this is a play about writing a play that is the play it’s about; please keep an open mind).
A previous Hand2Mouth collaborator, Stolowitz is here played by two actors, Erin Leddy and Damon Kupper, in a playful back-and-forth performance that adds levity to a challenging subject and saves the audience from the monotony of a one-person show. Leddy and Kupper relay Stolowitz’s journey to Berlin, where she travels with her family in hopes of filling in the blank spaces in her family tree. Stolowitz’s ancestors fled Germany during World War II, and she wants to get a sense of where they came from, and where, by extension, she came from. She carries a journal that once belonged to her grandfather, a Jew who escaped from Germany to New York in 1939. But over the course of the play, Andrea’s preconceived ideas about her family will be thoroughly challenged as she attempts to chart the generational ripples that extend from the trauma of survival, as well as the lost family ties that accompany forced movements across borders and continents.
Berlin is a city that wears its scarred history visibly, in broken buildings and intentionally preserved damage. As evidence of survival, as a warning, it can make for a pretty damn evocative place to visit right now, even in dramatized form. Berlin Diary makes beautiful use of the city, spinning Stolowitz’s meandering creative process into a smart meditation on the lasting effects of genocide and diaspora, and what gets lost to the historical record in the wake of personal and political trauma. If the news cycle has you feeling numb right now, it’s possible Stolowitz’s story will jolt you awake. But beware: The transition may be a jarringly emotional one. When an old man seated next to me burst into tears in the play’s final moments, I wasn’t at all surprised. He seemed to be speaking for all of us.