Mass murder or heroism? In this play, you decide

Actor Peter Roman (right) defends Mia Maestro, who plays the pilot at the center of “Terror.” Miami New Drama is staging the U.S. premiere of this interactive play at the Colony Theater on South Beach, opening Thursday.
Actor Peter Roman (right) defends Mia Maestro, who plays the pilot at the center of “Terror.” Miami New Drama is staging the U.S. premiere of this interactive play at the Colony Theater on South Beach, opening Thursday. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

The moral questions that surround terrorism and our response to it are safely abstract for most people. Is it OK to kill civilians in order to take out a terrorist leader? If a government declares that torture is legal, should a soldier refuse to participate?

But in “Terror,” the new play that Miami New Drama is staging at the Colony Theater starting Thursday, the audience must decide an agonizing question. A military pilot is on trial for shooting down a hijacked plane that a terrorist was guiding toward a packed stadium, killing 164 people onboard but saving 50,000 lives on the ground. The audience votes to convict or condemn her. One of the show’s advertising slogans is “her life is in your hands.”

“Almost all [dramas] are about people trying to do the right thing under difficult circumstances, from ‘Oedipus Rex’ to ‘Homeland’,” says Gregory Mosher, the nationally renowned director leading the play. “This is an extreme version of that dilemma. It’s a legal question and a moral question. Would you kill one person to save the lives of five people? Is it ever all right to act outside the law? Martin Luther King acted outside the law, but so did [South Carolina mass murderer] Dylann Roof. If we all think our own value system can serve some higher law, to quote Antigone or Boko Haram or the Islamic State, then it’s chaos.”

As the audience enters the South Beach theater, they’ll see photos of the imaginary victims and crash site, and receive ballots to render their decision. Approximately 50 people will sit onstage, like a real jury, a few feet from the person on trial and the consequences of their choice.

“I hope they change their mind several times,” says Mosher.

The play’s interest is amplified by the presence of Mosher, one of the most important theater directors in the United States. The two-time Tony winner has headed Chicago’s Goodman Theater and New York’s Lincoln Center, producing and directing plays at both institutions as well as on and off Broadway and in London; working with a who’s who of 20th century playwrights, including Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, David Mamet and Edward Albee and many famous actors.

Would you kill one person to save the lives of five people? Is it ever all right to act outside the law? Martin Luther King acted outside the law, but so did [South Carolina mass murderer]

Gregory Mosher, director of ‘Terror’

Mosher comes to the tiny, year-old Miami New Drama troupe thanks to its artistic director, Michel Hausmann, who was Mosher’s student at Columbia University and whom Mosher mentored as Hausmann produced New Drama’s debut show, “The Golem of Havana,” which had a sold-out five week run at the Colony last winter.

“I knew virtually nothing about Miami except I admired Michel a great deal,” says Mosher, who was also drawn by curiosity about the city and the chance to work with a fledgling theater company again. “I only do things if I don’t know how they’re going to turn out.”

His reputation has lured top-flight talent, notably Argentine-born Mia Maestro, who has had leading roles in “The Motorcyle Diaries” and “Frida” and the TV show “The Strain,” as the pilot; Tony-nominated, highly respected New York actors Pascale Armand, as the prosecutor, and the veteran Maria Tucci, as the judge. (Lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski is a Tony winner and five-time nominee.)

Hausmann introduced his former teacher to “Terror,” the first play by bestselling German author and lawyer Ferdinand von Schirach, which has been staged throughout Europe as well as in Japan, Israel and Hausmann’s native Venezuela. (The play’s website keeps track of the more than 250,000 “guilty” and “not guilty” votes so far.) This is the show’s U.S. premiere; after its Miami run, Mosher will have the rights to produce it in New York.

In Germany, the shadow of the Nazis, as well as more recent dilemmas over terrorism and refugees, hang over “Terror.” For Hausmann, the play’s themes of personal morality versus the needs of the state, and the value of individual lives versus the greater good, are also particularly resonant for the United States. Similar questions drove “Golem of Havana,” which was inspired by the experience of Hausmann’s Jewish family during the Holocaust and set in Cuba during the Revolution.

“How do we measure the value of life when we’re fighting a war on terror?” Hausmann says. “We killed 10 terrorists, but two civilians died. What does it say about us when we’re being so utilitarian?”

He feels those questions are newly relevant with the government of President Trump, who has said he would bring back torture and deport millions of undocumented immigrants.

“What the play does is ask what’s the conflict between what’s right and what’s legal,” says Hausmann. “I think that’s something we have to be very vigilant about in the next four years.”

In staging the play for Miami, Mosher and Hausmann deliberately opened the casting to different sexes, races and cultures. Hausmann hopes “Terror” will be particularly powerful in a city filled with generations of Latin American immigrants and political refugees.

“We don’t trust the law so much in Latin America,” says Hausmann, who fled Venezuela in 2010 amidst a wave of anti-Semitism and after his theater company was targeted by the government. “What is empowering for people like us is ... when we as a community decide what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Maestro, whose Miami friends include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, says the actors have discussed their family histories, which for several of them include dealing with an oppressive state. Armand is Haitian-American. Tucci’s parents fled Italy on the eve of WW II. The mother of Peter Romano, who plays the defense attorney, is from Syria.

Maestro, whose parents endured the brutal Argentine dictatorship of the late 1970s and early ’80s, is conflicted over her character’s actions.

“In Argentina a lot of things that came from the law or the government were not ethical,” Maestro says. “For me as the character, at times it’s been difficult to get into this mindset. It’s an awful thing to kill 164 passengers, even though you’re saving 50,000 people. But her argument is very logical, it makes sense to her.”

She says the actors wonder if playing their roles differently will affect the audience’s verdict.

“What a wonderful thing to have this device of people voting,” she says. “It’s perfect for Miami, this melting pot of people from all over the world. As a culture we like to participate.”

In translating the play from Germany to the United States, Mosher made changes to align the story with U.S. military procedures and American law. But he is most curious about how “Terror” will play to Americans’ unique sense of self-determination.

“When I was a kid I loved Davy Crockett, and his motto was ‘be sure you’re right, then go ahead,’ ” says Mosher. “That’s the pilot’s argument — I was sure I was right. Is that going to tilt in America in a way it wouldn’t in Germany?”

In a subsequent email, Mosher amplified his thinking about “Terror.”

“The question of whether it’s ever OK to act outside or ‘above’ the law has perplexed societies for thousands of years, and yes, the issue is currently very much on the boil in the U.S.,” he writes. “Not my president, and so forth. ... The question is, if it’s OK for some people to act outside the legal framework, is it then OK for everybody? There’s no easy answer to this dilemma, and every night of this play, the audience gets to vote.”

If you go

What: ‘Terror’ by Ferdinand von Schirach

When: 8 p.m. Thursday - Friday (previews); 8 p.m. Saturday (opening) and 3 p.m. Sunday; continues 8 p.m. Thurs. - Sat., 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 2-5, 9-12, and 16-19

Where: Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach

Info: $35-$60, opening night $100; colonymb.org/terror or 800-211-1414