Carol Adams, who began her acting career on the Port Washington stage, has come back to Wisconsin to perform in a soul-wrenching, one-woman play
When she was 8 years old, Carol Adams took a seat in the auditorium to watch her father in “Oliver” in the Port Washington summer theater.
Then she saw children singing in the show.
“I thought, I could do that,” she said.
Upset that Ed Adams didn’t include his daughter who was a little shy as a child, Carol auditioned and made the cut the following year for “The Music Man.”
She would do hundreds of auditions in the next several decades, but this one — her first — stood out.
“I still remember the audition I did. I sang ‘Hello Dolly,’” she said.
Now an accomplished actress, the 1979 Port graduate and Oregon resident has returned to Wisconsin to perform a one-woman Holocaust drama in Milwaukee this week called “Blonde Poison” with similarities to today’s Syrian refugee crisis. The play details the true story of Stella Goldschlag, a Jewish teenager trapped in Nazi Germany who was faced with nearly impossible life-or-death decisions that led to the death of hundreds of fellow Jews.
“So this is not a tap-dancing musical,” Adams said. “And by the way, it’s a one-woman show.”
Adams instantly had reservations.
“It was a completely different animal to take on. I almost didn’t do it,” she said.
Director Susan Coromel urged her to read the script first. She read it and was hooked.
“I’ve never felt so passionate about a project before,” Adams said.
She describes Goldschlag as a narcissistic, borderline psychopath who never identified herself as a Jew. Her father earned a medal fighting for Germany in World War I but her family was still captured and tortured by the Nazis. To save her parents from deportation — they were later deported and killed anyway — Goldschlag agreed to find Jews in hiding, and she found hundreds or even thousands. The Gestapo nicknamed her Blonde Poison.
“She’s a monster. I would not excuse anything she did. But it makes you wonder what would you have done,” Adams said. “First, she did it to save her parents, and it worked. Then, more orders came down and all Jews were to be ordered out of Berlin. Why did she continue? That’s the question.
“Most people who leave the theater walk out going, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Adams knew what she wanted to do since that first part in “The Music Man.” Port is where it all started.
“All of those summer shows and literally sweating it out with other actors. It was more innocent – we weren’t doing it for a job, reviews, or for a paycheck; it has a little bit of a different feel to it,” she said. “Back then, those summer shows – those were my friends. That’s what we did. We went to rehearsal every night.
“I look back and I always wish every show could be like those. It just seemed like everyone was good and we had so much fun. And we were so proud of the product we put on the stage.”
Adams was the first leading lady on Port Washington High School’s then-new stage in the late 1970s. She played the female lead in “Inherit the Wind” and acted in nearly every high school show under drama director Ralph Lohse.
Adams earned a degree in English education with a theater minor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has been acting ever since.
“I tried doing the normal office thing. People I’ve worked with will tell you I wasn’t very good at it,” she said. “This is what I’m good at. I don’t know why it is that I like it. I just do.”
She loves playing Goldschlag.
“This is the role of a lifetime and there have been so many things — things I learned from Ralph Lohse or before, speaking forensics in high school, acting lessons in Milwaukee as an adult — everything has led up to this role,” she said.
Adams said she would have performed “Blonde Poison” in Port but she wants the intimacy of a theater seating less than 100. She doesn’t use a microphone and has to speak the parts of 20 male and female characters with different accents.
“I have to make each one of them distinct so the audience knows who they are,” she said.
Before this week, Adams performed “Blonde Poison” nine times, but the work she put into it should yield more performances, she said. After getting the script in October 2014, she atypically worked with it for two and a half months before rehearsing on stage.
“I didn’t feel I could go in with a script in my hand and work the booking and work the emotion,” she said.
The play, written by Gail Louw, is based on a book by Peter Wyden, a boyhood friend of Goldschlag’s who got out of Germany before Hitler took over and became a journalist in America. He gained the trust of Goldschlag and was able to interview the former Nazi collaborator who led many to their death.
“She would never admit any fault,” Adams said. “It was always somebody else’s fault.”
The play explores a horrific aspect of World War II many people don’t know existed. Rabbis would be forced to make a list of Jews to be deported; if they refused, Nazis would take twice as many. Jews serving as guards in camps would receive more food and blankets.
“The Nazis were very good at using the Jews to self-police,” Adams said. “What would you do? Awful choices. A number of Jews were put in that situation. She was not the only one who did this.”
Goldschlag ended up having a daughter who was taken away as a baby since Jews claimed she was not a fit mother. Goldschlag looked for her child for 10 years, but her daughter didn’t want anything to do with her given her mom’s reputation.
Unlike fictional characters, Adams said she likes playing a real-life person because she could do research on her.
“This woman has affected me. She is under my skin,” she said.
Adams appreciates accolades on her performances and keeps a sense of humor about it.
“You’re so good in this show,” she said. “Oh, I’m a Nazi collaborator. That’s so wonderful to hear.”
That includes compliments from her husband, Jeff Fritsche, whom Adams didn’t let read or hear the show before seeing it live.
“He said he liked it. I make his meals so he has to be nice,” she said.
Even the playwright herself hasn’t yet seen it. Louw, a South African native living in England, encouraged Adams to continue performing after hearing rave reviews of her performances in Salem, Ore.
“Gail is trusting me with her words to do that, so I am very honored,” Adams said.
Regardless of who is in the audience, Adams said she still gets a little nervous before performances.
“There’s still stage fright. That helps me focus,” she said. “If you’re not nervous, you’re cocky and you’re going to mess up. You use it.”
Adams is using the show, especially given its theme, to help Syrian refugees. Louw’s husband and friends are involved with the crisis.
Louw isn’t charging Adams for rights to the show, so Adams is donating that money to the refugee crisis, and she is asking for goodwill donations at shows. Play On! Productions will match up to $225 of donations. Money goes to the International Rescue Committee (rescue.org), which Adams said is a highly rated charity with funds going to relief efforts and not administrative costs.
“The Syrian refugee crisis has so many parallels it’s scary to me,” Adams said. “The rhetoric that’s being spewed, it breaks my heart. People who think Syrians should wear something on their clothing.”
Adams is hoping her performances will make people wear something on their minds.
“It should make you ask a question. What would I do in that situation? Do I agree with that mother who did what she did?” she said. “All good theater should make you think. And it should stick with you.”