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‘Hannah and Martin’ at Shattered Globe: Fireworks of mind and heart as the Reich rises

Submitted by on Apr 25, 2019 – 5:46 pm

Professor Martin Heidegger (Lawrence Grimm) moves on from philosophy with his student Hannah Arendt (Christina Gorman) in “Hannah and “Martin.” (Photos by Michael Brosilow)

“Hannah and Martin” by Kate Fodor, produced by Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit through May 25. ★★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson

In a Chicago theater season that has produced a generous share of first-rate work, there’s been little that might top the brilliance and torment generated by Christina Gorman and Lawrence Grimm in Kate Fodor’s “Hannah and Martin” at Shattered Globe Theatre.

It’s a story as mesmerizing as it is heated and exotic, this historical – and historically sound – romantic affair and intellectual tussle between two of the most influential philosophers of the last century: Martin Heidegger, a Nazi sympathizer and advocate of idealized German culture, and Hannah Arendt, a blazing Jewish thinker who was Heidegger’s one-time student and short-time lover.

A moment of fragile domestic bliss between Heidegger (Lawrence Grimm) and his wife (Cortney McKenna)

Through crisp, charged dialogue, Fodor’s play traces the remarkable liaison between the bright student and her celebrated professor from its tentative, awkward and certainly unequal beginning through the war years to, one might say, a second consummation in Arendt’s defense of her mentor’s right to resume his teaching career after Germany’s surrender.

Grimm, tall and regal and assured, cuts a wholly believable figure as the imperious intellectual giant that was Heidegger. His tome “Being and Time,” on the essence of being human, provided the model for Jean-Paul Sartre’s equally weighty existential tract “Being and Nothingness.” Grimm gives us first Heidegger the visionary and then, by degrees, the man played by the Nazis, their eloquent advocate who somehow believed that his concept of a rebirth of Greek idealism was the ultimate goal of Hitler as well.

Gorman’s volatile Arendt follows a no less absorbing path, from exceptional student, awestruck in the presence of her philosophy professor, to emergent political thinker, analyst of the Jewish heritage of social and cultural apartheid and literary critic extraordinaire. When Hitler’s rise posed a clear threat to German Jews, Arendt made a desperate escape that ultimately brought her to the U.S. and Chicago. She taught at both Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.

“Hannah and Martin” is like a memory play, not exactly “told” by Hannah but starting with her in the forward-most moment of the story and ending there as well.

It is a moment of conflict, of recanting: Arendt, by this time a formidable academic figure, has written a letter recommending against Heidegger’s appointment to a German university post because of his association with the Nazi cause. Now she is contradicting herself; now she’s saying she was wrong and that her first letter should be ignored and this reconsidered judgment given precedence. How she arrives at her change of heart shapes the narrative of the play.

Christina Gorman as Hannah Arendt: A performance of brilliance and torment.

The real launch point is a scene in Heidegger’s academic office. He has summoned her to discuss a “problem” in an essay she has submitted. Gorman’s flustered, embarrassed Hannah tries to parry: She knew she hadn’t given the assignment enough time. She knew it was problematic. But Grimm’s mildly amused Heidegger quiets her. A problem, he observes, is not always a bad thing. In this case, the problem is a logical one, a conundrum that she has identified but not pursued. Never mind answered; questions are generally more useful than answers. But the logical problem, he says, bears consideration.

Hannah is a very bright girl, even rare, and Heidegger, her senior by 17 years and the married father of two sons, is immediately drawn to her. Their second meeting gets down to extra-philosophical matters, and its delicacy here is exemplary of the work of both actors as well as the stagecraft of director Louis Contey.

Hannah (Christina Gorman) and her husband Gunther (Steve Peebles), both Jews, see the danger rising around them.

Though these two firebrands go their separate ways, they manage to stay in touch. Heidegger even pays a visit to the now-married Hannah and her husband Gunther (the animated and witty Steve Peebles), also his former student, who knows about the old affair. The reunion doesn’t go terribly well.

That could be said generally of Heidegger’s fortunes as blindered mouthpiece for the Third Reich. In the end, it is Gorman’s worldly and accomplished Arendt who is assured and in control when she confronts her former professor to throw his hateful misdeeds into his face. But Heidegger is unbowed, and Grimm’s ranting self-dense turns positively luminous when he wheels to the phonograph to play something for this Jewish woman, his longtime friend and onetime paramour. It is Wagner, and it is glorious: This is what it was all supposed to be about, proclaims Grimm’s transported Heidegger. Not stupidity and hate and ruin, but German glory, golden and pure.

If Heidegger really couldn’t see what was happening around him, in the play he also seems to overlook the venomous Nazi sympathizer in his own home, his long-suffering but also willful and decidedly anti-Semitic wife (Cortney McKenna in a quietly chilling performance). As Hannah’s second important professor, Karl Jaspers, who accepts her on Heidegger’s recommendation, Doug McDade offers a grandfatherly portrait of a philosopher with both feet on the ground. And no Wagner in the air.

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