“Way to Heaven (Himmelweg)” was inspired by the true story of the Nazis’ charade at the Theresienstadt concentration camp where “Himmel Weg” or “Paradise Way” was the name of the street leading to the gas chamber. The play, which recounts the stormtroopers’ building of a happy-go-lucky fake town for international inspectors to visit, is an off-Broadway must-see, not for the obvious historical reason but for two equally important artistic ones. Between Juan Mayorga’s intricately layered script, which probes the meaning of theater as literally life and death event, and Francisco Reyes’ tour de force performance as the Commandant, “Way to Heaven” comes alive like few contemporary dramas in recent memory.
Through deft direction courtesy of Matthew Earnest the tale engrossingly unfolds backwards, beginning with one of those international inspectors, a Red Cross employee – Shawn Parr, who manages to conjure the weight of conscience with every step he takes – still haunted by the implications of his having fallen for the ruse. Walking the lovely long rectangle of fallen brown leaves that divides the audience in two he relays exactly what happened on that fateful day as if performing a personal exorcism. For the next hour and a half through riveting stage action and highly evocative lighting (that goes from bright to dim to total darkness – even to flashlights) we’re taken back in time as the Jews who are forced to act for their lives rehearse their assigned roles, stumbling and repeating lines like any novice thespians; while the Commandant presides over what may be their final show in the ultimate sense, serving as both writer and producer/director, and relaying his instructions through Mark Farr’s “Mayor.” Reyes’ SS man is a physically daunting Aryan presence in full intimidating regalia, absolutely terrifying solely because he’s so casually charming and funny. Seemingly unable to remember “Mayor” Gottfried’s first name, the Commandant also can catch himself in an instant, subtly recalling “Gershom” whenever he feels the metaphorical noose slipping from his grip. Details like these in Mayorga’s script give actual substance to the term “banality of evil.” And as the Commandant warns us with regards to the Jews who like to “paint themselves” as victims, “Don’t trust your eyes.”
Which could be a nutshell description of “Way to Heaven” as well. The audience like any theater audience enters in a state of “suspension of disbelief” – which is shockingly and insidiously dismantled right before our eyes. What Mayorga has done is nothing less than guided us on a journey backwards through the steps of creating illusion itself. From the start we’re more than willing to believe that these stilted actors are delivering David Mamet-style performances – but, no, they’re “untrained actors” rehearsing. And once that realization occurs everything that subsequently appears before us arrives with a question mark. For what is the meaning of “artificial” in the context of a play where by definition everything is artificial? “Behind the words and the gestures there’s nothing else,” the Commandant says about acting. Or was that life? By the end of “Way to Heaven” we no longer ask in frustration, “How could the international community have been so fooled?” Instead we wonder about our own accomplice selves, ever so eager to suspend disbelief.