BWW Review: EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED at Theatre J
Jonathan Safran Foer's 2002 semi-autobiographical debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, is a riveting portrayal of one man's quest to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis at the start of World War II. While the journey of the central character, Jonathan, is the focus of the book, and the brilliant adaption playing now at Theatre J, the secondary story of Alex and his grandfather is equally, if not more, poignant.
The novel uses a convention where chapters of the book are written by "Jonathan" and by "Alex", and when Simon Block adapted this for the stage a few years after the book's publication (and shortly after Liev Schreiber's well reviewed, but hardly seen film) he said, in the program notes: "Being a less literal medium than film, it occurred to me that theater might be a more promising medium for an adaption that wouldn't shy away from the competing timelines of the book, and could properly engage with its emotional force." It has been a long time since I read the book and I have never seen the film, but this production succeeds in Mr. Block's assertion to engage with its emotional force.
At the center of the piece, Jonathan is played with youthful drive and mature determination by the brilliant Billy Finn. Mr. Finn achieves Jonathan's journey through his nuanced delivery of the beautiful text, and creates a character that is searching for his light with great ambition. As Jonathan's tour guide / translator, Alex Alferov is equally as brilliant in the young man searching for something, although he doesn't know it. We slowly start to realize in the second act that Mr. Alferov's character is also on a journey of discovery and just as he starts to realize it, we the audience start to understand through his nuanced portrayal that there is another story being told here. Mr. Alferov should also be commended for navigating the various accents, with the help of Dialect Coach, Nancy Krebs. Daven Ralston plays a myriad of characters (and instruments) and is equally as strong as the rest of the cast.
The two veterans of the cast, Eric Hissom and Nancy Robinette are performing to their usual high caliber standards. When we first Ms. Robinette at the end of the first act, we aren't sure who she is, or what her purpose is, but as Ms. Robinette shows with her senility-inspired performance, the Old Woman has a story to tell and she is hiding behind a mask that refuses to see the light. Mr. Hissom, as Grandfather, has the most difficult job to do and he achieves it with massive success. Grandfather, at first, seems like your typical curmudgeon whose sole purpose is comic relief and to ease tensions. But with Mr. Foer's words and Mr. Block's adaption, Grandfather is the most nuanced character, who by the finale, goes from comic relief to a man who is looking who absolution. Mr. Hissom's performance underscores every moment of that and he perfectly and subtly makes the transition and is the character (and actor) who achieves the great accomplishment.
When you are attending a performance and you know that it is being director by Aaron Posner, you know that you will see an expertly crafted show that is deliberate in even the tiniest of details. Mr. Posner has orchestrated a massive undertaking. He has staged a beloved novel and turned it into an intimate encounter for the audience. His choice to have actors play instruments on stage to quietly underscore the action was masterful. There was not a single decision made by him or his staff that did not light up the stage. It was, in short, a masterclass for future directors. With Paige Hathaway's perfectly cluttered set, Kendra Rai's luminous costumes, and Jesse Belsky's vivid lighting, all of the elements combined together to perfectly illuminate this production.
Theatre J Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr said in his curtain speech that he lobbied to receive permission to perform this play (possibly only the third production after Chicago and the UK), his lobbying was well worth the effort. Everything Is Illuminated takes you to a place you did not necessarily want to go, but the journey and the payoff are huge. Like the acclaimed novel, this production will bring a tear to your eye. One of happiness, sadness, contemplation and absolution. Like Mr. Block said in his interview, the entire team of Everything Is Illuminated, has indeed, engaged us with emotion.
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission
Box Office: (202) 777-3210 or online.
Photo Credits: C. Stanley Photography