Everything is Illuminated
Written by Simon Block
Not exactly ‘Fiddler’
|Next Theatre Company presents|
|Everything is Illuminated|
Review by Leah Zeldes
Growing up Jewish in the latter half of the 20th century meant living under an ever-present shadow. My family emigrated from Eastern Europe well before World War II, escaping the pogroms and privations of Tsarist Russia a generation before, but even so, the darkness of the Holocaust shaded us all.
That background makes Next Theatre‘s Everything is Illuminated difficult to watch. The play, adapted by British playwright Simon Block from Jonathan Safran Foer‘s highly acclaimed first novel, follows his namesake character to the Ukraine, where he tries to trace Augustine, a woman he believes saved his grandfather from the Nazis.
"Never again!" was the mantra of my generation’s childhood, with detailed and graphic exposure to the atrocities committed on our people to imprint the message. I was 8 years old, at summer camp, when I was first shown the documentaries. I read Anne Frank’s Diary before I was 10. I saw the tattooed arms of neighbors. I cannot remember a time when I did not know precisely what, had I been there, might have happened to me.
Nor was it the Holocaust alone. The whole history of Judaism is a remarkable record of surviving attempts at genocide, from the aforementioned pogroms on back through the Inquisition, the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and the Exodus. On nearly every holiday, Jews are reminded of the efforts of others to kill, enslave or convert us: Purim, just past, celebrating how tables were turned on a Persian tyrant who ordered all the Jews put to death; Passover, coming up next, when we recount how our forbears escaped oppression in Egypt; Hanukkah, commemorating a battle that saved the Jews from annihilation.
To be born a Jew is to have a precarious and wary existence, often punctuated by violence and pain. "It was my destiny to be hurt," says one of the characters in Everything is Illuminated.
On one hand, I am glad that shows like this exist, passing on to younger generations the lifesaving paranoia that has kept the Jewish people alive over millennia, and telling Jews and gentiles alike just how it was and how it still is. On the other hand, having been browbeaten with this lesson for my whole life, I feel like I’ve learned it well enough. Why can’t we have new Jewish stories without angst and terror?
Act I starts off humorously enough. Jonathan, a would-be writer, arrives in the Ukraine, and meets the "heritage" guides he has hired: Alex, the translator, who can barely speak English, and has been violently pressed into service by his offstage father, and Alex’s foul-mouthed and supercilious grandfather, their reluctant driver,; plus grandfather’s smelly and ill-behaved dog, Sammy Davis Junior-Junior. Alex, the one really likeable character, played with sensitivity by Alex Goodrich, is puzzled by much about the fast-talking New York Jew, portrayed as a Woody Allen-like nebbish by Brad Smith. Jonathan is taken aback by Alex’s broken English and by Grandfather, who speaks no English but regales his grandson with his uncharitable opinions of "the Jew," some of which gets across to their client. William J. Norris alternates ably from grumpy to snide to angry to self-justifying in portraying this very difficult character.
Grandfather absolutely does not want to go to the small town Jonathan hopes to visit, and claims not to know where it is. Nobody else seems to have heard of the place. But they do finally get there, and in Act II we meet the sole surviving resident, an ancient woman compellingly played by Ann Whitney, and find out why Grandfather didn’t want to make the trip and what became of the town. Alternating with these very disturbing scenes, we get distracting sequences from the story Jonathan is writing, his made-up version of the story of his ancestors, depicted by Sasha Gioppo and H.B. Ward, and their life in the shtetl prior to the war This vision turns out to be just as disturbing as what happened subsequently.
The translation of this work from page to stage perhaps contributes to the unevenness of this show. The novel, I understand, has a great deal more humor to offset the distressing recounts of violence. Onstage, there just isn’t room. Further, in the epistolary novel, the disjointed episodes of Jonathan’s storytelling and his dialogues with his creations, may work better than they do on stage, where they are distracting from the actual and emotional journey traveled by the main characters. As the main story line progresses, we find that the protagonist is not who we think it is, and that transition is too abrupt.
A variety of inconsistencies, improbabilities and anachronisms plague the story, most of which likely came out of the novel, but become even more glaring onstage. A number of other things are left unexplained, as well. We never find out who Augustine was or what she did. Nebulous resolutions are common enough in real life, but make disappointing drama.
The Next cast and crew have done an excellent job of presenting the play. Particular kudos go to Sound Designer Nick Keenan for the incidental music. The acting is exceptional. The play itself, however, is too flawed to be satisfying.
Everything is Illuminated continues through
March 31st April 14th at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map), with performances Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $30-$40, and are available by phone (847-475-1875 x2) or online through PrintTixUSA.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at NextTheatre.org. (Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
behind the scenes
Devon de Mayo (director); Baleigh Isaacs (stage manager); Grant Sabin (scenic designer); Mieka van der Ploeg (costume designer); Nick Keenan (sound designer); Heather Gilbert (lighting designer); Eileen Rozycki (props designer); Kristin Leahey (dramaturg); Eva Breneman (dialect coach); Adam Liston (production manager); Rick Julian (technical director); Becky Warner (assistant stage manager); Nicole Ripley (assistant technical director); Andrew Carter (assistant dialect coach); Diane Fairchild (master electrician); Megan Turnquist (electrician); John List (carpenter); Cait Chiou (scenic painter); Amber Collins (wardrobe assistant); Michael Brosilow (photos).