a play by Tadeusz Slobodzianek
in a version by Ryan Craig
Directed by Nick Sandys
Produced by Remy Bumppo think theatre
At the Greenhouse Theatre, Chicago
Harrowing drama puts faces on the role of Poles from Jedwabne in a massacre of Jews
Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s play, Our Class, translated by Ryan Craig is a fictional version of the 1941 pogrom committed by the Polish residents of Jedwabne against the 1600 Jewish town residence based on the 2000 book, “Neighbors” by Princeton historian Jan T. Gross. The story depicts the events and motivation behind the slaughter of 1600 Jews most burned alive in a barn.
Our Class is told as a memory play by ten classmates, half Catholic and half Jewish. We see them from childhood in school through the devastation through the rest of their lives. Told in a 2 hour, 45 minute drama, Our Class emerges as a “must see” theatrical event that will shake you to your bones. It is a story that begs to be told and the artists at Remy Bumppo, under the creatively brave leadership from Nick Sandys, invest all their energy into a heartfelt depiction of the various personalities that made the dynamics of mass killing possible. Our Class shows how ordinary common folks can so easily move into the darkness of evil when their society is shaken by military occupation that allows escapist blame to be played out through antisemitism.
As we meet the five Jews from the class, they seems to get along with their Polish neighbors like any group of teens would in a rural atmosphere. Here religious differences instigated by the Catholic priests and general ignorance and jealousy of the Jews occasionally emerges. But when the Soviets occupy Jedwabne in 1939, the status of the Jews under Communism seemed to be enhanced thus adding to Polish resentment.
We see how several of the Polish classmates, Heniek (Dennis William Grimes), Wladek (Matthew Fahey), Zygmunt (Matt Holzfeind) and Rysiek (Brian Plocharczyk) suffered at the hands of the Russian NKVD while the Jews appeared to flourish. This added to the antisemitism feelings so when the Nazi’s invade in 1941, the Polish in Jedwabne were ready and willing to killer all their Jews without help from the Nazis.
In Remy Bumppo’s harrowing depiction of the killing, at first of Jukub Katz (Aram Monisoff) then Dora (Rachel Shapiro) and her baby followed by vivid and horrific depictions of beating Jews with axes toward the rest of the town’s Jews, unfolds as a glimpse into the darkest moments that a person can lower himself into. We see Zyfmunt as a near psychopath as Matt Holzfeind plays him while Dennis William Grimes, as Heniek, and Rysick, Brian Plocharczyk, seemed to get willingly caught up in the mob psychology fueled by hate and revenge. These troubling scenes shake us to our core as we see how ordinary folks can so easily do and then justify killing others. The killings scenes are hard to watch yet they are vividly staged.
We also see how faith and the basic survival instincts rule the Jews. Menachem, played by Stephen Spencer, hides but doesn’t aid his fellow Jews and Rachelka/Marianna, played by Rebecca Sohn, hides with Pole Wladek and eventually converts to Catholicism to survive. We hear, by letter, from Abram (David Darlow) the only classmate that migrated to America in 1935 as he eventually learns of the fate of his former classmates and Jewish neighbors.
Act two depicts how each surviving classmate are personally impacted by the mass killings both from the perspective of the survivors and the perpetrators. Cover-ups, personal denials, justifications and rationalizations allow memories to be altered to allow the perpetrators to function until guilt fuels drunkenness, anti-social behavior, even religious zealousness. Survivors guilt plagues the Jews as everyone involved directly or indirectly in the pogrom bears the scares from those events. Seldom in a play about such horrific events do we see the lifelong effects on all the players.
Kudos to Nick Sandys and his staff, including the marvelous projection designs by John Boesche for staging this work as a theatrical event packed with power and deep emotions that underscore and amplify the despicable acts. The entire cast acted as a dedicated ensemble wholly invested in telling the story without pulling any punches. Each player has several fine moments. Our Class is a ‘must see’ work that demonstrates the power of the live stage to present the multiple perspectives about a story too long denied. This work will makes us wonder what we’d do under the same circumstances. That thought should scare us if we honestly say what we’d do. Our Class is one of the finest plays produced on a Chicago stage this year!
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: April 11, 2014
For more info checkout the Our Class page at theatreinchicago.com
At the Greenhuse Theatre, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL, call 773-404-7336, www.remybumppo.org, tickets $42.50 – $47.50 – $52.50, students $15, Wednesdays thru Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2:30 pm, running time is 2 hours, 45 minutes with intermission, through May 11, 2014