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At New Phoenix, a tale of Nazi ascendance straight from the source

Tania Wisbar knows from experience how fascism takes root.

She understands how it spreads its tendrils slowly into every corner of a vulnerable society.

And she has a dire warning for area theatergoers, packaged in a play called "The Red Dress": It can happen here, too.

Born in Berlin in 1937, Wisbar was the product of an unlikely relationship between her mother, a Jewish magazine publisher, and  German film director Frank Wisbar, who became known for making Nazi propaganda films.

Wisbar escaped to the United States with her mother and sister in 1938, subsequently shedding most aspects of her family's Jewish identity.

It was only years later, in 1999, when she discovered a manuscript her mother had written about the Nazi takeover of the German film industry, that she learned the full truth about her family's complicated background.

The story of her parents' complex relationship and its destruction at the hands of the Nazi party provided the inspiration for "The Red Dress," which opens a month-long run in the New Phoenix Theatre on May 31.

Wisbar found her way to Buffalo through her friend Jonathan Sanger, a veteran Hollywood producer who suggested Buffalo as a place to produce the play after shooting the 2017 film "Marshall" here. It was previously produced in Los Angeles to mixed reviews.

Her mother's story, she said, was incredibly painful to explore. But there were lessons in it that she felt compelled to bring to the stage.

"She was pregnant with me during the years when she was being interrogated, and there was a system of interrogation," Wisbar said. "I wondered how a civilized country would become so prone to look at others and slaughter them. It really doesn't make human sense, unfortunately it is what we do rather often. It's sort of the drip, drip, drip of the loss of human rights, civil rights and the right to live."

Wisbar's mother, she said, was secretive about her Jewish identity, a protective impulse she understood but nonetheless regrets.

"I went to Catholic preschool and to a lot of religious-based educational systems, but never anything Jewish," she said. "I think for any parent to deprive a child of a history, maybe to protect the child from a bad history, but in the end it is not a good idea. It's a bad decision. I think every child needs to know who they are."

The play, while it does not directly mirror her parents' experience, is meant to demonstrate the rise of the great Nazi fiction and how the imperceptibly slow pace of its rise is perhaps its most insidious feature. That's why it's set between 1924 and 1936, as the Nazi party rose from a fringe element on the outskirts of German society to its most prominent political force, fed by the fears of a downtrodden populace.

"When you can separate people by race and then say this group is not worthy of life, you've already taken a huge step toward the loss of rights for everybody," she said. "You can't deprive one group without ultimately having another group pay the price."

Does Wisbar think a similar force is now unfolding its own tendrils in her adopted country?

"That's the fear," she said. "That is the absolute fear."

Theater Preview

"The Red Dress" runs May 31 to June 23 in the New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park. Tickets are $20 to $30. Visit newphoenixtheatre.org or call 853-1334.

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