BWW Reviews: Theater J’s OUR CLASS Is Compelling, Insightful

By: Oct. 17, 2012
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In graduate school, I read Jan Gross’ award-winning book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland for one of my European history classes.  I remember being struck by Gross’ ability to weave together a rigorous socio-political examination of an unspeakable massacre that unfolded in that non-descript town on July 10, 1941, including how it happened and why, with what was essentially a compelling character-driven narrative.  It was the best of academic research and story-telling.  Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s Our Class, an epic play based on Gross’ work, also examines the ‘before and after’ of Jedwabne massacre, but with a slightly different lens; it is compelling and emotional to its core.

Now in production at Theater J (with an English version by Ryan Craig), Our Class follows a group of ten Jewish and Catholic classmates in the small town of Jedwabne, Poland over an 80-year period beginning in the 1920s.  As Soviet and German forces occupy the country in the late 1930s, their life stories become less defined by common friendships and dreams of what they want to be when they grow up and more defined by their own ethnic and religious identities.  When the Jewish population of the town increasingly becomes a target of political aggression, the classmates arrive at a crossroads.  One of the Jewish students leaves for America, others become victims of religious and ethnically-driven violence (including acts perpetrated by their own classmates) in the town, and others still form bonds with their Catholic classmates and, in the end, survive the mass killings and violence.   One particular incident where 1600 Jews are burned to death in a barn at the hands of their own neighbors proves to be a defining life event for many of the classmates- some of which are directly involved either as victims or perpetrators.   Originally blamed on Nazi forces, this massacre continues to haunt the living for the rest of their lives and influences their life paths. 

Under the direction of Derek Goldman, a ten-member cast of local actors uniformly shines as the classmates and provide Washington audiences with a master class in compelling dramatic acting.  Slobodzianek/Craig have provided these actors three-dimensional, fully-fleshed out, characters to portray and they certainly rise to the occasion.  Each character arc is evident and although the narrative is in and of itself dramatic and heart wrenching, the acting is virtually never overwrought or cartoonish.  The relationships between the characters are also quite believable and realistic.

There are no weak links in the cast, or even standouts - a good thing in this kind of play. Tim Gettman (Menachem), Heather Haney (Zocha), Laura C. Harris (Dora), Alexander Strain (Heniek), Mark Krawczyk (Zygmunt), Dana Levanovsky (Rachelka/Marianna), Joshua Morgan (Wladek), Sasha Olinick (Abram), Ashley Ivey (Jakub Katz), and Harlan Work (Rysiek) all carry the show equally.  I will resist the temptation to describe each of their contributions (or else this review will be longer than James Joyce’s Ulysses), but I do want to mention several highlights.

Although Gettman can tread the line between being cartoonish and realistically awkward at times, he excels equally with Menachem’s comedic and dramatic moments.  His humor in some of the initial scenes juxtaposes nicely with his intense acting later on- particularly where Menachem interrogates his former classmates who perpetrated violence against his wife, Dora, and other Jews in the town.  Haney, likewise, proves she is exquisitely capable of portraying a girl who never wanted to be a hero, but did what she could to save several of her classmates.   Zocha’s realization near the end of her life of how her actions in the 1940s shaped who she became and how she’s viewed by others, offers one of the most compelling moments in the play thanks to Haney’s fine acting. 

Harris and Ivey have, perhaps, the most dramatically intense moments as Dora and Jakub, respectively, endure unspeakable atrocities at the hands of their very own classmates.  Their realistic touches to these difficult-to-watch scenes highlight their characters’ emotional and physical pain in a touching and memorable way. 

Levanovsky and Morgan take great care to portray Rachelka/Marianna and Wladek’s unlikely relationship with humor and despair.  Their best moments come as they play off one another at the seemingly best and worst of times as their lives take directions they never dreamed.   Both are masters at using their physical movements, including facial expressions, to convey more than is possible with just words.

Strain and Krawczyk’s layered portrayals of Heniek and Zygmunt, respectively, are crucial to making their characters’ transformations matter in the end.  As adults, far removed from the atrocities of the past, they finally acknowledge their roles in the violence.  These brief, but climatic moments give great insight into the human condition in all of its complexity – nothing is black or white.  As Rysiek, Work has to come to terms with his role in the massacre in a different way, but he too brings humanity to his character as he meets his bitter end in an act of violence.

Finally, Olinick exudes charm, humor, and charisma as Abram, the classmate who flees the instability in Poland with his family early on in the play.  His endearing qualities make the love that he expresses to his former classmates in his letters seem truly heartfelt. Although he is mostly physically removed from his classmates, he makes a great effort to establish that the emotional bonds still exist and that, despite the chaos surrounding all of them, they are still human.

The exemplary acting is backed by minimal production values.  Director Derek Goldman was wise to ensure that these elements do not detract from the telling of the story and exploring the relationships between characters.  The choice to set the entire play in a bare-bones classroom, designed by Misha Kachman, is a wise one.  All of the classmates formed their initial bonds there and remained intertwined even after school ended.  Yet, all actions (and feelings about those actions) harken back in some way to those early days together.  A series of songs and choreography (Emma Crane Jaster) well-performed by the cast also highlight these bonds. Other production elements reinforce the time, place, and focus of the story. Ivania Stack’s costumes are period appropriate and give some inkling as to each character’s socio-economic and/or ethnic/religious status.  Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lighting design, James Bigbee Garver’s sound design, and Eric Shimelonis’ compositions highlight the mood of each scene and further establish context. 

Our Class is certainly a difficult piece of theatre, but those who take the time to see this epic narrative will likely appreciate not only the artistic merits, but also the lessons that can still be learned from the story.  Although the play's construction does not leave much for the audience’s imagination or allow much room for deeper explorations of the how/why of what occurred, the story does speak for itself.  In the end, that’s certainly satisfying.

Like Gross’ book, the play reminds us of how religious and ethnic identities can be used to rationalize and drive socio-political action both at the individual and group level.  In turn, individual and collective human behavior within the context of a particular social-political situation also further shapes those identities.   Historical narratives and collective memories were powerful forces in the 1920s-1940s in Poland and they still are today - in every country in every part of our world.  Theater J’s timely and powerful production of Our Classis a good reminder of this and, at the same time, offers some of the best acting one can witness in Washington, DC.

Running Time: 3 hours with one intermission.

Photo Credit: C. Stanley Photography.

Our Class runs through November 4, 2012 at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center- 1529 16th Street, NW- in Washington, DC.  For tickets, call 1-800-494-8497 or purchase them online.


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