If you happen to feel a slipping sensation during UC Santa Barbara's Theatre Artists Group production of "The White Rose," it's most likely the rug being pulled out from under you.
Lillian Garrett-Groag's play begins as a semi-biography of the famous band of doomed student protesters in 1942-43 Nazi Germany, but it ends up in our own back yard.
Along the way, disturbing questions are raised about individual conscience and social responsibility, and director Peter Lackner's in-your-face staging spares no opportunity to erode the comfortable stance of moderate compromise to which most of us accommodate.
That stance is embodied in the character of Robert Mohr (Pope Freeman), a middle-age bureaucrat in charge of the Munich police, who keeps his private values carefully hidden as he tries to maintain order in a city facing the advancing Allied forces.
Mohr's complacent allegiance to duty is profoundly shaken when he's pressured by Mahler (Tony Miratti), an ambitious Gestapo officer, to indict the university students responsible for printing and distributing leaflets advocating sabotage and resistance to the Hitler regime.
While Mahler is intent on proving a vast conspiracy of espionage and treason, Mohr recognizes the White Rose for what it is--a group of idealistic youths about the same age as his own children, driven by fiery intemperance. The leafleting by these kids, he reasons, will have no effect on anything. "Who's going to read them? People don't read--they go to the movies."
But with the sullen intolerance of masters who rule by intimidation and deceit, Mahler argues that lack of faith in the government is unpatriotic and unsafe, and continues to assemble the proof necessary for a speedy conviction and execution.
In a mere five days, the five student ringleaders of the White Rose become sacrificial martyrs as Mohr looks on, powerless to save them.
The handsomely mounted production benefits from impassioned actors who, despite some stepped-on lines at the reviewed performance, eloquently state their views and believably act on their convictions.
Freeman and Miratti make a fine pair of adversaries, bristling with mutual dislike as they make their respective power plays. The young students (Peter Flanders, Mike Healy, Matt Tavianini, Kevin Murphy and Stephanie Sandberg) are endearingly life-loving in the flashback scenes of their student lives, and tragically noble during their interrogation.
Murphy is especially unflappable as he baits the interrogating Mahler with the names of his traitorous contacts in "high places": Ludwig Van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Thomas Aquinas . . .
Sandberg radiates integrity as she refuses Mohr's last-ditch attempt to persuade her to save herself with a false claim of ignorance. "Millions of people pretend to go along every day of their lives so they can survive," he pleads.
She counters that the real damage is done by those who don't want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. "If you don't make any noise," she sneers, "the bogey man won't find you. And it's an illusion, because they die too: those who rolled up their spirits into tiny balls to hide them under their puny lives to be safe."
* WHERE AND WHEN
"The White Rose," Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. in the UC Santa Barbara Main Theatre. Tickets are $12. For reservations or further information, call 893-3535.