‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ a Malibu effort in Santa Monica

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The courtroom drama “Judgment at Nuremberg” premiered Saturday at the Santa Monica Playhouse led by three Malibu residents, actors Drake Hogestyn and Katharine Ross, and director Diane Namm.

Perhaps most well-known for the 1961 film version starring Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster, “Judgment” is one of the first published pieces about the worldwide aftermath of the Holocaust after World War II. The production explores the lives of everyone involved in a U.S. military tribunal-the American judges out of sorts in postwar Germany, its civilians and the two Nazi associates on trial for crimes against humanity.

Hogestyn plays Ernst Janning, one of those two men, in a stoic performance of a minister of justice convinced that he did no wrong to Jews imprisoned in concentration camps; according to Janning’s character, he was only following orders of the Fuhrer. Ross portrays Frau Bertholt, a kindly German woman who develops a friendship with the tribunal’s head judge, Dan Haywood (Ian Patrick Williams).

Namm, a 21-year Malibu resident, staged the production as part of her West of Broadway nonprofit company, including “Judgment” in the playhouse’s “You, the Jury” series, a unique, partially interactive staging where the fourth wall is broken down, its audience members becoming the courtroom’s very own legal spectators.

Namm said one of the most important creative motivators in recreating the Abby Mann-penned treatment was to bring better awareness to the horrors of the Holocaust-a subject, she said, that is no longer taught in most high school history classes. “They’re classic adaptations that aren’t really read,” Namm said. “College kids need to seek it out in order to know anything about it.”

Though the fictionalized series of events in “Judgment” occured more than 60 years ago, Namm believes the subject matter is just as relevant in 2011 than ever before. Because of this, none of the original dialogue was altered. “I think that it [the play] resonates very much with an audience of a modern sensibility,” she said. “We stuck to the dialogue because it’s sacred. But I wanted people to feel that this could happen anywhere and it could happen now, because there are genocides and wars going on all over the world. I think every country has to be very wary of scapegoating, and finding some ethnicity to blame economic troubles on.”

At a special preview on Friday, audience members agreed. The gasps of disbelief were audible during one scene in particular, in which real newscast footage of Jewish prisoners suffering, starving and tortured was shown on the stage’s front wall, behind the tribunal dais. “It was rendered really well. It’s amazing how current it is,” Rich Brunner of North Hollywood said.

Actor Sam Elliott, husband of cast member Ross, was in attendance and said during Friday’s intermission that “Judgment” resonates completely with today’s political and social climates. “It’s an incredible piece,” Elliott said. “It lends itself to what’s going on in the world today.”

Those who come to see “Judgment” may walk out of the theater with more questions than answers about justice, the world and, more importantly, themselves. Namm said she encourages this kind of ambiguity. “I hope everyone walks out of there wondering what they would do as the defendant,” she said, asking, “How do we judge ourselves?”

“Judgment at Nuremberg” runs through April 3 at the Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th Street. Tickets can be obtained online at www.WestOfBroadway.org or by calling 424.434.9WOB.