BWW Review: THE BOOK OF JOSEPH at The Everyman Theatre
The psychological arcs of history are sometimes lost in the details and dates. THE BOOK OF JOSEPH amplifies those emotional truths as it follows the Hollander family's past struggle to survive World War II and present struggle to deal with the reverberations of a past we both wish to remember and seek to forget.
The play opens as Richard Hollander (Bruce Nelson) conducts a book tour for Every Day Lasts a Year, his family story based on letters and documents from 1939 to 1945. Nelson is a delightful host, at turns funny and vulnerable as he tries to bypass sadness but keeps veering into it.
With understated power, director Noah Himmelstein, and his outstanding ensemble bring the letters to life. In 1930's Poland, the Hollanders live in a cocoon of wealth and high social status. But son Joseph (Danny Gavigan) sees fascism and war on the horizon and secures passage for his extended family to go to Portugal. Obtaining the visas was an amazing feat, but the family doesn't believe anything bad will happen to them. Joseph pleas with them to get out, but they live in the bubble of "it can't happen here."
Gavigan's soulful Joseph is the heart of the story. He captures the tragedy and triumph of a true hero, a man who helped many escape but could not persuade his own family of imminent danger. Joseph was a man of honor with intelligence and foresight. Gavigan connects the audience to the greatness of an extraordinary ordinary man.
Joseph and his wife find themselves on a difficult path when Portugal denies them entry and they end up as unwelcome refugees on Ellis Island. Multiple appeals are rejected until in an ironic twist, Joseph finds himself allowed to enter the United States by joining the military which sends him to Germany. It is a circuitous journey as Joseph finds himself back on the other side of the ocean whereas his family's carefully written letters had escaped Nazi censors to go to America.
The ensemble's clear-eyed, unsentimental approach reveals the depth and strength of a family whose bonds cannot be broken even at the extremes of pain and stress. The actors navigate events and multiple characters with nuance and finesse.
The generational circle completes itself in the second act when Richard's son, Craig (an appealing Elliott Kashner), confronts his father about facing the truth of what we do and don't know about the past. Craig is a historian and just as Grandfather Joseph pleaded for what he knew would happen, Craig pleads with his father to stop ignoring the past and deal with its imperfections and blank spaces.
War, bigotry, refugees, fascism, false information and willful ignorance: yesterday's headlines are today's news. The audience is witness to the past while living in its new incarnation.
Denial is a response to something so horrifying it can not be digested in one sitting. Denial is also a response to a truth so inconvenient, you hope it just goes away and leaves you alone. In the end, denial besomes a delusion that engulfs both its victims and perpetrators. There is nothing so destructive to sanity and progress than the gap between what we insist reality should be versus, well, reality.
Who are the Josephs' of today? What warnings are we not heeding? What are we hiding from ourselves? What should we be celebrating in each other? The story of the Hollander family is our story as well, sad and triumphant. For what is lost to horror and tragedy is found in the endurance of love.
THE BOOK OF JOSEPH plays now thru June 10th at the Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St., Baltimore 21201. For ticket information call (410) 752- 2208 or go to www.everymantheatre.org