Jeremy Kahn and Emily Goglia in Everything Is Illuminated
photo credit: David Bazemore

Everything is Illuminated, a play based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, goes onstage at the New Vic in a production by Ensemble Theatre Company beginning April 10th. The story takes the audience on a journey with Jonathan (Jeremy Kahn), an American searching the Ukraine for the woman who may have saved his Jewish grandfather's life during the Holocaust.

Guided in his quest by Alex (Matt Wolpe), a local interpreter, Jonathan wants to recover any remaining traces of his grandfather's life in a shtetl decimated in the war. Like Dante in The Inferno, Jonathan is also guided by a blind man, Alex's surly grandfather. The blind man drives them around with his hellhound/guide-dog, named "Sammy Davis Junior."

I asked actors Matt Wolpe, who plays Alex, and Emily Goglia, who plays several characters, about the comedy in the show. They report that the show is hilariously funny. I asked Wolpe how his character contributes to the show's comic relief. He explained that even before Alex makes a joke, the play infuses his character with irony by making him a translator with terrible English skills. Wolpe pointed out that Alex also tells jokes with the old-fashioned style of delivery that recalls Steve Martin or Dan Ackryod: "Everything in the Ukraine is dated by a decade or two," Wolpe said, "their clothes and their comedy." Humor's a necessary companion as we dive into memories of that notorious period of history--the time when the Jewish people in Eastern Europe faced annihilation by Stalin and by Hitler.

Actor Emily Goglia, whose characters come from various epochs, described the charming challenge of making each role physically and vocally unique. Goglia has several quick-changes of costume, leaving the stage for just a few moments and returning as another character. One can look forward to seeing how Goglia and costume designer Dianne Graebner have navigated these rapid changes of roles.

The production's scenic and sonic elements promise to sharpen the archetypal and mythic contours of the terrain of guilt and responsibility, truth, and imagination. Set design by Francois Pierre Couture, by all glimpses, will provide a visual space for this story's fantastical elements and its toehold on realism. Wolpe and Goglia praised the Gypsy-Klezmer-Ukrainian folk music and sound crafted for the show by designer-composer, Randall Tico. In previous productions, Tico typically expands the emotional resonance of a story as well as enhancing a sense of location.

This play has not had many previous productions because its production rights were tied up, but the timing of the show now seems especially ripe: Twenty-two percent of people eighteen years and older say they haven't even heard of the Holocaust, according to a survey by Claims Conference. In a world in which living memories of totalitarianism in the early 20th-century fade, we need some illumination. As the character of Mary says in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night: "The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future, too."

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From This Author Anna Jensen