Strong Acting Enhances Play Based On Real Events at Upstream Theater

The play is called “Conversations With An Executioner” and, like so many plays at Upstream Theater, it’s based on a true story and adapted by the brilliant Philip Boehm. A strong cast of actors brings to life the story of a former Polish journalist who fought with the Home Army in Poland but was later imprisoned by the Stalinist Polish secret police, believing he was a collaborator with the Third Reich.

J. Samuel Davis, John Bratkowski and Gary Wayne Barker in Upstream Theater's production of "Conversations With An Executioner." Photo credit: Peter Wochniak.

He is forced to share a cell with a former SS General who was responsible for the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and who the journalist once attempted to assassinate. The resulting confrontations, along with a third prisoner who at times baits him as well, is the crux of the play and it offers some surprising results. J. Samuel Davis is superb as the beleaguered journalist, Kazimierz Moczarski who makes the best of his physical and emotional torture by committing the stories of the SS General to memory for his eventual memoirs. His almost submissive tenor at times gives way to several outbursts at the impudence of the General.

By contrast, Gary Wayne Barker is the essence of arrogance and a man who feels he is always in control- even when he’s not. His General Jurgen Stroop is the perfect foil to the seemingly meeker temperament of Moczarski. He, of course, denies any participation in the atrocities that occurred during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. As the third man in the slow simmering cell, John Bratkowski is almost a sounding board for the other two. His allegiance is clear from his background, but he doesn’t mind fanning the flames of their game of cat-and-mouse.

Robert A. Mitchell rounds out the onstage cast as the prison guard who interrupts and occasionally spies on the volatile trio. He then neatly and succinctly ties up the story at the end. Part of the curtain call and an integral part of the play is Isaac Lifits, who provides provocative and haunting music of the period on the accordion throughout “Conversation With An Executioner.”

Directed by Philip Boehm, the play moves quickly through an almost hour and a half one-act. Scott C. Neale has provided a dingy and realistic set in the round and Steve Carmichael’s lights and Michele Siler’s costumes add to the grittiness. Always unusual and always entertaining, Upstream Theater continues to impress with “Conversations With An Executioner.” See it through April 29th at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Call 314-863-4999 for tickets or more information.

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