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'Judgment at Nuremberg' a grim look at history

The aphorism "those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it" is the force behind Ashland Community Theatre's shift from contemporary theater fare to "Judgment at Nuremberg," based on a screenplay by American film writer and producer Abby Mann.

Set in Nuremberg in 1948, the story is a fictionalized version of the Judges' Trial of 1947, the third of 12 trials held before U.S. military courts at the end of World War II in its occupied zone in Germany. The trials are known as "Subsequent Nuremberg Trials" or, more formally, the "Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals."

The defendants were German jurists and lawyers. Some served as officials of the Reich Ministry of Justice. Others were prosecutors and judges of the Sondergericht or Volksgerichtshof, "special courts" used to remove internal opposition to the Nazi regime and enforce laws that led to non-combatant war crimes against a civilian population, including genocide, eugenics, sterilization.

In 1961, Mann took home an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and in 2001 a staged version of "Judgment at Nuremberg," also penned by Mann, was produced on Broadway.

In 2013, "Judgment at Nuremberg" was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."

Ashland Contemporary Theatre and Livia Genise Productions have joined forces to present a staged reading of "Nuremberg." The theater companies' joint venture last year produced the rock musical "Chess."

"I jumped at this chance," says Jeannine Grizzard, ACT's artistic director. "'Nuremberg' demonstrates its point about the slippery slope of normalizing evil. Rationalizing tolerance for small-scale injustices sabotages a society's moral authority to combat atrocities."

This staged reading of Mann's wartime drama will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 30 and July 1, and 2 p.m. Sunday, July 2, at the Bellview Grange, 1050 Tolman Creek Road, Ashland. Shows also are set for Friday and Saturday, July 7-8, and 2 p.m. Sunday, July 9, at the Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way.

Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online at ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org, at Paddington Station in Ashland and Grocery Outlet in Medford, or at the door. Call 541-646-2971 for information.

Livia Genise directs. John Lambie reads as Judge Dan Haywood, Ian Wessler as Ernst Janning, Derek Rosenlund as U.S. Col. Tad Parker, Michael Meyer as Oscar Rolfe, Kate Sullivan as Frau Berholt, Jack Seybold as Judge Norris, Joe Charter as Emil Hahn and Dr. Carl Wickert, Kaitie Warner as Maria Wallner, Will Churchill as Dr. Heinrich Geuter and Werner Lampe, Heiland Hoff as Rudolph Peterson, Carole Weekley as Mrs. Halbestadt, Dianna Warner as Elsa Lindnow, C.H. Chou as Capt. Byers, Joe Suste as Gen. Merrin and Frederik Hofstetter. Tim Kelly provides video design and narration.

"I believe we need to constantly re-examine the issues this play confronts, Genise says. "It is a timely discussion. The Nazi's succeeded for many reasons, including the support of big business, a controlled media and an apocalyptic political religious zeal. The immense travesties they perpetrated happened because no one believed it would come to that.”

Genise directed a full stage production of "Nuremberg" in 2005 for Camelot Theatre in Talent.

While Mann's script is based on trial transcripts, the writer explores the motivation behind the crimes committed by Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. He tried to put a human face on the German people as the world became aware of the war crimes by looking at the choices an individual makes in a fearful society, where it is "us" against "them," and how that individual justifies the choice.

Lambie leads the large cast. 

"It's compelling to absorb the information Judge Haywood hears in the trial — information now known to history — and respond as if hearing it for the first time. Haywood's principal characteristic is his ability to listen to shocking testimony and emotional argument without reacting immediately, the way many of us would do with strong opinion or demonization. Hard to do but very admirable."

John Lambie, left, reads the role of Judge Dan Haywood, Kate Sullivan is Frau Berholt and Ian Wessler is Ernst Janning in 'Judgment at Nuremberg.' [Photo by Steve Sutfin]