The setting, a prison cell in Munich. The year, 1943. The characters, one 21-year-old woman named Sophie Scholl (Lexi Lapp), and one middle-aged man, Kurt Grunwald (Paul Deboy). The story, true.
David Meyers’ “We Will Not Be Silent,” in production as part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, doesn’t pull any punches with its direct storytelling. The run time is only little more than an hour and even that runs at a brisk pace. Outside of Sophie and Grunwald, there’s only one other character who speaks, Sophie’s brother Hans (Lucky Gretzinger), and he really only appears occasionally.
Bells and whistles aren’t necessarily needed, though, when the tale you tell is as powerful as the one here. Scholl is a founding member of The White Rose, a group dedicated to taking the Nazi Party down. What is presented to us is the interrogation of her via one, Mr. Kurt Grunwald. He demands that she change her position on the ruling party or she’ll be executed. Her brother, Hans, is also imprisoned for the same reasons.
The thing is, even Nazi interrogators can have a heart, and as we see the relationship between our two main characters develop, the pertinent question that this play hopes to ask becomes painfully clear: How far will you go to stand up for something you believe in? And, more obviously, would you give your life for it?
It’s an intriguing proposition, given the context of the story in front of us. Grunwald contends that denouncing The White Rose isn’t really all that big of a deal — Sophie could continue to believe whatever she wants internally, though as long as her words indicate otherwise externally, she’ll be allowed to live. Sophie, meanwhile, is cemented in her position that it takes something such as her martyrdom to truly illicit change throughout her home country.
“If I sign this,” Sophie says after reviewing a letter that could save her life — if only she signed it, “I am everything I oppose. Someone who looked away, who did anything to save themselves.”
Stunned, Grunwald reasserts his point that he wants to see his new-found friend live and he urges her to understand the weight of her decision. The 21-year-old resists.
“You want me to sign this so you can life with yourself,” she eventually explains. “But if I sign it, I cannot live with myself.”
In many ways, the dichotomy of the two characters could be attributed to cliched tropes: A generational gap. Gender inequality. Life experiences. But the heart of the story actually digs deeper than that. Grunwald sat by as Hitler rose to power, he admits, ultimately trusting in the notion that … well, it’s just easier that way. He doesn’t necessarily agree with everything the dictator says; he just didn’t have the will or the way to stand up against it as it was formulating.
To Sophie, this is as cruel as Hitler himself. Apathy and complacency is precisely how manipulated hatred becomes the new norm, she argues, and to sit by and do nothing about it is a sin that reaches far beyond the mere act of enabling.
“But if you live, you will mean something,” Grunwald asserts at one point. “You will be a symbol.”
“Yes,” Sophie replies. “That no one in Germany was willing to do what was right.”
Chemistry is the name of the game between Lapp and Deboy. If they didn’t have it, the production wouldn’t work, let alone cut as deep as it sometimes does. The interrogator bounces back and forth between impatience, sympathy, anger and care with the frequency of a lightning bolt and while it humanizes the character, it’s hard to fully trust him, even as the house lights go up and the production concludes. The two main players share a bond, and it makes Sophie’s decision feel as though it contains even more weight than it already would.
And what is her decision? Anyone who has studied the history of the war already knows the answer to that, but if you haven’t, it’s worthwhile to see for yourself. No matter the outcome, though, “We Will Not Be Silent” forces you to reflect upon your own beliefs and exactly how much you might sacrifice for them.
“It’s just words, Sophie,” Grunwald advises his prisoner, hoping to save her life. “They mean nothing.”
“They mean everything,” Sophie snaps.
Indeed, they do.
“We Will Not Be Silent” runs through July 30 at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. See catf.org for details.