How bad could it be? What Evelyn is hesitant to mention isn’t something awful but rather something virtuous. She’s leaving for Europe on Tuesday to bring back 40 Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Austria and she needs one more family to sponsor a child. It’s awkward to mention such a thing amid breezy party chitchat — more awkward still to recruit your friends to the cause. Although set against the backdrop of Nazism, “Sheltered” is less concerned with the problem of evil than the problem of good.
“What does it mean to do something good, especially when you take extreme action to do it?” Sobler asks over the phone from D.C.’s Theater J, where the show is getting its first full production since its 2018 premiere at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. “At one point in the play, Evelyn says ‘This is not how I thought it would be.’ It’s one thing to have noble intentions, but it’s another to do the hard work required to carry it out. That’s interesting to me because the cost is always going to be massive. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do good, but we should be aware of the cost.”
Watching the play with the benefit of hindsight, Evelyn’s decision seems like an easy one. But in the world of the play, it’s not so clear. Roberta’s husband argues that Adolf Hitler is just another right-wing leader who will be constrained by the rest of Europe. Besides, Martin is short on money and coping with a troublesome teenager. He’s got plausible reasons for not becoming involved. Don’t we all?
At a time when migrant children have been separated from their parents in camps along our own border, the play has a timely relevance. But Sobler insists that’s just a coincidence. When she started writing the play in 2015, the world’s attention was on the refugee crisis in Syria, not North America. Sobler had wanted to adopt a Syrian child, but when she decided that wasn’t practical in a one-room New York apartment, she realized that doing good is not always as simple as it appears. That idea inspired the play, but she decided to set it in the past, not the present.
“I like history, but I also like sci-fi,” the writer says, “because they both allow us to look at now from a distance, not through a window but a mirror, actually a funhouse mirror. If you write a play about now, people already have an opinion, and they say, ‘I know what I believe. Let’s see if you can change my mind.’ If that same person is viewing a story in the past or an imagined future, they don’t automatically know all the arguments, so they’re more likely to listen.”
Sobler began the script while a graduate student at Columbia University, during a one-on-one tutorial with Lynn Nottage (a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner for “Ruined” and “Sweat”), completing its third draft in a class taught by David Henry Hwang (author of the Tony -winning “M. Butterfly”). “I was so fortunate to work with two of America’s greatest living playwrights, who both proved to be exceedingly generous,” Sobler explains. “They don’t fix your play. They help you develop it into the best version of your play that you can do. They’ve been through everything a playwright can experience, so they were the best possible guides.”
During her final year of MFA studies, Sobler submitted the script to the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, and won. (Past winners include “Moonlight” screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney and “House of Cards” scribe Kenneth Lin.) The prize included an Alliance Theatre production, directed by Kimberly Senior. Senior was so impressed with Sobler that the director recommended her for a project to create a one-woman show based on the writings of Margaret Trudeau, the ex-wife of former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau and the mother of the country’s current leader, Justin Trudeau.
“She’s fascinating,” says Sobler, who has now spent lots of time with Trudeau. “She was the first lady of Canada at 23, was later diagnosed in life with bipolar disorder, suffered many public struggles with that and lost a child. She knew tons of famous people and has funny stories about them. She’s very open about mental illness, and that’s something I’m interested in writing about. The more we can talk about that and undo the stigma, the better off we are.”
According to Sobler, the more we talk about refugees and immigrants, the better off we are as well. The first act of “Sheltered” deals with the reluctance of the comfortable to take in an endangered child. Set in a Vienna hotel room, where Evelyn tries to reassure a distraught mother, act two concerns the hesitation of a parent to let go of that same child. In both halves, Sobler notes, the crucial dramatic moments involve one woman talking to another, something that’s all too often left out of history books.
“One thing that recurs through history is the scene of parents having to send their children away for a better life or safety,” Sobler notes. “It started with Moses, and it’s there in the first episode of ‘Watchmen.’ Now it’s obvious what should have been done in 1939. But people knew that then, and still it wasn’t done. And today, people know what should be done, but it’s not done.”
Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. 202-777-3210. theaterj.org.
Dates: Through Feb. 2.