Jonathan Safran Foer’s debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, in which a young American writer named Jonathan Safran Foer visits the Ukraine in pursuit of his Jewish family’s pre-Holocaust history, was a sensation upon its release in 2002. Many reviewers praised what The New York Times called its “complex narrative strategy,” with some sections narrated by Jonathan-the-character’s cocksure Ukrainian tour guide, Alex; another thread comprising chapters of the book Jonathan is writing imagining his ancestors’ lives; and epistolary material revealing that Alex and Jonathan are reading and editing each other.
Having never read Foer’s novel or seen the 2005 film adaptation, I can’t speak to stage adapter Simon Block’s success in translating Foer’s inventive prose. But Block’s 2006 retelling, in expert experimenter Devon de Mayo’s powerfully affecting, ideally cast U.S. premiere, had me hot-footing it to the library.
The first act treats the quest as effective road-trip comedy, with Jonathan (Brad Smith, self-effacingly embodying American entitlement), Alex (Alex Goodrich) and their driver, Alex’s cantankerous grandfather (William J. Norris), setting out in search of a long-lost shtetl. What they find in Act II ties all three together in darker, more unsettling ways. Foer’s theme of personal lineages inexorably informing our individual presents comes through in stunning fashion.
Goodrich, an actor I’ve long admired for his comic chops, is extraordinary as the blusteringly modern Alex, who unexpectedly unearths disturbing new information about his own family’s history. Stage vets Norris and Ann Whitney, as a wartime survivor, deliver painfully beautiful monologues about the choices and consequences faced when one’s home ground becomes a battleground.
Scenic designer Grant Sabin’s eclectic curio cabinets and lighting designer Heather Gilbert’s brilliant use of practical instruments enhance De Mayo’s jewel-box staging. One might accuse Block of mild cheating in his denouement, which has newly successful Jonathan at an author appearance, reading “one of the most requested passages” from Everything Is Illuminated. But Next’s production is nothing if not luminous.