The stage set is just a small filthy jail cell in the intimate downstairs Studio Theatre of the Irish Repertory Theatre. There are only two characters in Robin Glendinning’s extraordinary play based on a true story. Yet in the course of an hour and fifty minutes, including intermission, there are brilliant performances by two actors with dialogue that explores wide universal subjects, including war, mass killing, guilt, religion, humanitarianism and the possibility or impossibility of redemption or forgiveness.

“Kingfishers Catch Fire,” tautly and intelligently directed by Kent Paul, takes place in 1948 in an Italian prison. Haskell King plays real-life character Herbert Kappler, a Nazi military officer sentenced to incarceration for life for his role in the massacre of 335 people on March 24, 1944, in the Ardeatine Caves near Rome in retaliation for the killing of 33 German soldiers by partisan resistance fighters the previous day.

Kappler is bitter because others involved received less harsh sentences, and he still feels that he had no choice but to follow orders and is filled with self-justification even though he carries with him the haunting images of the massacre and the pitiful state of the victims. But it is clear that he is mainly concerned with his own plight now and he spews hatred.

Visiting Kappler is real-life Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, convincingly played by Sean Gromley. an Irish priest known for enlisting a group of priests, nuns and others to rescue more than 6500 people from the Nazis. He is checking up on Kappler’s conditions in prison, a humanitarian mission that he sees himself performing in the name of God. He encounters Kappler’s fury in his bitter rejection of God, society and authority, and in the second act, when the priest makes return visit, even though he had left earlier with the intension of severing ties, he brings the prisoner a photograph of the son Kappler and his wife had adopted, only to have Kappler tear the photo to pieces.

The aforementioned themes come to the fore in the sharp confrontations and brittle, steamy discussions between Kappler and Monsignor O’Flaherty. We also learn that the priest has become disillusioned and unhappy because he has been denied his desire to serve in Africa.

As the play unfolds we are primed to wonder whether Kappler will soften and bend to the priest’s dutiful efforts to extend his religious and humanitarian assistance. We can also ponder whether this mass murderer deserves any compassion on the basis of his having to follow orders. The play ends in a dramatic and poignant scene that pulls together much of what has gone before in the relationship between the two men.

Regardless of how one feels about the issues, there has been the thrill of watching two powerful actors in well-written roles bring the characters they play vividly to life. (To find out what eventually happened to Kappler, you can consult a program note.) At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Phone: 212-727-2737. Reviewed October 12, 2019.

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