Taproot’s play about Bonhoeffer is moving, well done

A 1964 German postage stamp honored Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Taproot Theatre’s production of Douglas Anderson’s play, “The Beams Are Creaking,” is a moving and extremely well done rendering of the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and leader of the resistance to the Nazis.

The play begins as Bonhoeffer returns from a year of study in New York (during which he fell in love with the Black Church experience and its music). Realizing the threat from Hitler and the Nazis is far more urgent and dire than he had thought, Bonhoeffer formed the Pastors’ Emergency League in 1934. Soon, the League gave rise to The Confessing Church, the fulcrum of Christian resistance to the Nazis within Germany.

Events move quickly in the play, as they did in Germany at the time. By the end of the first act it is 1943 and Bonhoeffer has been arrested for his part in several plots to assassinate Hitler. If Anderson’s script has a weakness, it is to so telescope Bonhoeffer’s own agonized move from pacifist pastor to participant in an assassination plot that it appears a snap decision, which it was not.

The second act unfolds entirely during Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment, drawing powerfully from Bonhoeffer’s writings during that time. Charged with treason, Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945, just weeks before the fall of the Third Reich.

In the contemporary American context this vivid re-telling of the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is both welcome and odd. Or perhaps, Bonhoeffer’s story is at odds with the current landscape of religion and, in particular, Christianity in North America.

The contemporary framework imagines American religion and Christianity in terms of the “two-party” explanation, assigning people to either the liberal or conservative camp. Bonhoeffer was neither. On one hand, he was deeply Christian. The Barmen Declaration, the Confessing Church’s statement of resistance to Hitler, cited as its key biblical text John 14: 6. There Jesus asserts, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me.” Anchored in this passage, the Confessing Church rejected the claim that loyalty to Hitler supplanted loyalty to Jesus Christ. By contemporary theological standards, such Christian exclusivity would make Bonhoeffer a conservative.

And yet Bonhoeffer was adamantly opposed to anti-semitism, and resistant to all attempts to enlist Christianity in service to the state and its militaristic aspirations. Moreover, he was a broadly educated and deeply literate man with a particular devotion to classical music. By contemporary standards, such markers would make Bonhoeffer a liberal.

And yet Bonhoeffer doesn’t fit our standard explanatory frameworks or available categories. A liberal or a conservative? Both or neither. Bonhoeffer was both deeply Christian and an active resister against excessive state power and nationalist ideologies.

Though there have been many such Christians, not easily pigeonholed in the usual liberal-conservative categories, and there are many so today, one would hardly know it to judge from accounts in contemporary media and popular culture, which reduce all to religious conservatives or secular liberals. For this category-vexing alone, “The Beams Are Creaking” (a code phrase to those engaged in the plots to assassinate Hitler) is a welcome breath of fresh air.

Matt Shimkus, who appears in the role of Bonhoeffer, does a terrific job of rendering Bonhoeffer’s mix of resoluteness and moments of uncertainty. The staging, in the intimate Taproot venue in Greenwood, draws the audience into the tense, fast-moving drama.

Because of demand, Taproot’s production of “The Beams Are Creaking” has been extended through April 30. It had been scheduled to run through April 23, which had already meant the play would run through Holy Week. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting experience for Holy Week than taking in this play.

For viewers or readers less familiar with Bonhoeffer, but interested to know more, Bonhoeffer’s own writings, including Letters and Papers from Prison, The Cost of Discipleship, and Life Together, will be of interest, as will the 2010 biography of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

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