Jonathan Draxton in "Soldier"

Jonathan Draxton in “Soldier”

When you enter the small, black box theater at HERE to see Soldier, a new play written and performed by Jonathan Draxton, the usher presents you with a jar of pennies. You and the others take one, receive no playbill, are told to keep all bags off the floor, and are sent to sit on the stage in what might be described as a cloud of chairs facing each other in a randomly distributed circle. Everyone can see everyone else. There is an emo guy with a shaved head and a soul patch, some plain looking white guys in their 30s, two older women and a couple of older men, a young black woman, a young south Asian woman, and three young white women who dress as if they are on their way to a yoga studio.

If you are at HERE, you are probably the kind of theatergoer who isn’t afraid of experimental theater. You are not the kind who likes his plays to be escapist and comforting, entertaining and spectacular, though you may secretly fear the artiste’s desire to force empathy on you by breaking the fourth wall (parodied brilliantly by The Onion: “Oh No, Performers Coming Into Audience!”). On the other hand, it’s likely that you have some ideas about what makes a legitimate or an illegitimate claim on your empathy. In your secret heart of hearts, you crave authenticity and pure emotion, but you prefer to consume it instead of it consuming you.

The usher shuts the theater door and takes a seat with you and the twenty or so other audience members. The lights seem to gain intensity, and a tallish blond man, early 20s, goosesteps onto the stage wearing an SS uniform, his hobnail boots making the walls and your ears ring. This is not going to be fun, you think to yourself.

The young man introduces himself to us: his name is Heinrich Weiss. He and his troops are standing on the banks of Styx hoping to get the penny given by the usher so they can cross to the other side. He takes a piece of chocolate out of his pocket and gives it to you — a common wartime bribe — and you take it. (I love German chocolate — it’s delicious.) The other audience members glower a bit, as if you were accepting chocolate from a real SS trooper and not a literary figment, but you don’t let it bother you. This is a play, not real life.

Heinrich’s father, also Heinrich, was a decorated German World War I veteran, and his mother was an English nurse. They met in a veterans hospital after the war. The elder Heinrich was blinded in a gas attack, and his mother’s incomprehensible English sounded like angel’s singing to the invalid. Father was a quiet man at home, but when he took little Heinrich to the bierstube to drink with his war buddies, he would become animated, singing old war songs and telling stories of valor in days gone by. When he gets home after such a night, mutti is very unhappy, and berates him for incivility. He yells at her, “ich bin ein Soldat!”

Some years later Heinrich is at a Nazi rally. Once again the men are singing war songs and telling stories of valor in days gone by. Heinrich is swept away by the hope, the optimism of the Nazi message: we are willing to fight for a better world for now and for future generations. When he gets home, he finds his mother has packed her steamer trunk and is moving back to England. Let her go, he says, fighting back his tears. Weak women abandon their children when History makes them men. Heinrich joins the party, then the army, then the einsatzgruppen. He kills people — that’s what soldiers do. He also drinks, flirts with girls, and has adventures with his boys. That’s also what soldiers do. He kills many, many people — some of them in battle, some in cold blood. But he never acts out of cowardice or pique. He does not kill the enemies of civilization, the Jew and the communist, out of murderous rage, but as a homeowner kills cockroaches or mice.

Heinrich and his men are sent to Stalingrad. Their supply lines cut, buffeted by the brutal Russian winter, all ammunition spent and rations eaten, he surrenders to the Soviets, asking to be treated as prisoners of war. The Soviet commander orders Heinrich to his knees. He kneels Heinrich’s men in front of him and cuts their throats with a bayonet, one by one. And that is how Heinrich and his men got to be on the banks of the river Styx without any coins to give Charon. Three times during the play Heinrich (a fictional character represented by a young man in an SS uniform) asks for a penny to cross to the land of the dead.

The first time he asks, one of the young women, weeping, puts it in his hand. They hold hands for a long moment, then Heinrich steps back, knocks his heels together and gives a Nazi salute. The other theatergoers glare at her. He goes from person to person, and many, most of the rest, refuse to give him the coin. The second time he asks one young woman in the audience looks like she wants to punch Jonathan Draxton in the face. You think about Quentin Tarantino’s movie Inglorious Basterds, and the adrenaline fueled blood lust you felt watching that revenge fantasy. Your face flushes with shame as he asks for your penny, and you see every face in the room judging you. He’s dead, the Germans are not any more inherently evil than Jews or Russians, this isn’t even real! But you feel pressured to reject Heinrich, to punish him, to kick him, humiliate him, rid the world of his kind for the sake of your children, the same way you would rid your house of cockroaches or mice.

The one girl never gives her penny. She clearly feels cheated, and probably will avoid “art” theater for the rest of her life. The last one to give a penny is one of the nondescript thirty-something white guys. He hands it to Heinrich, who gives him the Nazi salute. Then the guy’s face quivers like a puddle on the battlefield, and he starts to cry. He slides off his chair and buries his face in his girlfriend’s lap and sobs. And sobs. And it becomes clear that Mr. Draxton has achieved what very few who try to break the fourth wall achieve: true and profound catharsis.