What would you do if someone in your church had a secret past, and their story was suddenly splashed on the front pages of every newspaper?
This actually happened in a Mennonite church in Vancouver in the early ’90s. A Dutch journalist exposed one of the church’s members, Jacob Luitjens (alias Gerhard Harder), as a former Nazi police officer, who was convicted in absentia to life imprisonment for war crimes.
Writer and director Ron Reed remembers following the story in the media. From the time he was a boy, Reed was troubled by the Jewish Holocaust, and wondered how, after World War II, war criminals could just diffuse into the make-up of society, take up day jobs, and hide their past.
“When I learned these people lived among us, I was horrified,” says Reed, who explains, “My first response [to Luitjen’s story] was ‘Don’t let this guy get away. Prosecute him to the full extent of the law.’”
At the time, Reed was actively involved in peace and justice issues, and admired Mennonites for their work in the conflicted area of Israel-Palestine. But he was flabbergasted when a Mennonite church defended Luitjens, saying Luitjens should stay out jail to serve others. Reed was upset that his “social justice heroes” were standing up for a Nazi war criminal.
Reed interviewed the church pastor. Layers upon layers of implications, complications, and subtleties emerged as he looked at the situation from every angle. Then he created characters to present each perspective. He wrote the first draft of his play, Refuge of Lies, in 24 hours.
Response to a real-life story
Reed’s resulting play is not a biography or an adaptation. Neither is it a didactic piece that offers the “right answer” at the end, or sends you away with a moral prescription. Instead, it’s a response to a real-life story that raises difficult questions, challenging the audience to analyze their views of justice and forgiveness.
“When you write about something you don’t have an answer for, then you get a good play,” says Reed. “When you also write about something you feel strongly about, then you get a great play.”
Reed cast Anthony F. Ingram in the role of the pastor character, Jake. Since 1985, Ingram has been an active member of Pacific Theatre, where the play is being staged from April 9 to May 1. Ingram’s experience in a Mennonite church in adolescence colours his depiction of a strong, dynamic pastor thrown into an uncomfortable situation. He’s inspired by memories of his former pastor, whom he describes as a gentle spirit with a great sense of “Mennonite humour.” In fact, after high school, Ingram aspired to be a pastor. Playing one onstage, Ingram says, “is a chance for me to live out that fantasy.”
Ingram talks seriously the play’s theme.
“It’s a story of the struggle between justice and repentance, and what repentance means,” says Ingram. “I think the play really speaks to a need for compassion, compassion for all history – what people went through on either side [in WWII] – and a passion for seeking justice, and the root of why they’re seeking justice.”
Ingram explains that the play discusses Old Testament and New Testament ideas of justice, or what Ingram calls “eye-for-an-eye versus forgiveness.” Members of the church show strains of anti-Semitism, adding another layer of fog to the haze. Ingram’s character shows forgiveness, but it’s not simplistic. Other characters add their own layers.
“Everyone is right at some point,” Ingram says. “No one comes across as one-dimensional.”
The central character of Rudi, the ex-Nazi, is played by Terence Kelly. Kelly’s wife, Anna Hagen, plays Rudi’s wife in the play, providing what Reed calls, “an intangible connection.” Rudi is deeply stressed by the accusations, and begins to confuse the past with the present. The audience experiences his confusion and memories in a sort of dream sequence.
Ingram feels a Mennonite audience will understand certain aspects that other patrons may not. “Mennonites will see themselves – their own cultural references – on stage,” he says. “You get the sense of the Mennonite community being really separate … being its own ethnic group here [in Canada] and not understood.”
Reed agrees. “A play like this will have extraordinary impact on an audience,” he says. “I’m eager that Mennonites see this play.”
Refuge of Lies runs from April 9 to May 1 at Pacific Theatre at 1440 West 12th Avenue in Vancouver. Box office 604-731-5518.