Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at Greenhouse Theater Center. By Tadeusz Slobodzianek. Directed by Nick Sandys. With ensemble cast. Running time: 3hrs; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
In one unimaginably horrifying incident in a Polish village in 1941, hundreds of Jews—the entire Jewish population of the village, along with many who'd gathered there after fleeing from rising persecution in other villages—were locked into an overcrowded barn and burned alive.
For decades afterward, this massacre was reported as an action of the occupying Nazis. But around the turn of the 21st century, a new study suggested the killings had been carried out by the non-Jewish neighbors of those slaughtered, a matter of simmering anti-Semitic sentiment allowed to boil over by the arrival of the Germans.
This is the foundation of Tadeusz Slobodzianek's play, which harrowingly depicts the events leading up to the massacre using a class of students who begin the piece singing classroom songs. The kids may be young, but as Slobodzianek depicts it, resurging post–World War I anti-Semitism is already seeping into their classroom, as the Jewish students are asked to sit in the back while the Catholics are led in prayer. Alarmingly, both sides casually draw a distinction between Poles and Jews.
Tensions rise among our class as the Soviets arrive and the Christian students sense the Communists favor the Jews; some of the Poles move to form a nationalist resistance, while classmates on both sides find themselves compromising their morals and the Soviets poison the Poles and the Jews against one another. By the time the Nazis arrive and tides turn, you're filled with dread but still unprepared for the atrocity to follow.
That first act, as staged by director Nick Sandys using simple props and a nearly bare stage, is exactly as agonizing to watch as it should be as a demonstration of humanity's worst tendencies stoked by unrest. You're not likely to hear much cheery chit-chat at intermission. But not everything in Slobodzianek's writing flies, at least not in British adapter Ryan Craig's English version. David Darlow is an effective moral center as the Jewish boy who emigrated to America and whose letters home to his friends provide pause, but that neither he nor his erstwhile classmates demonstrate awareness of what's going on elsewhere in Europe stretches credulity.
And the playwright allows too much air out of the room with an overlong second act that catalogs not just the immediate aftermath of the massacre for the Poles and the two Jews who survived by remaining hidden, but follows each of them through imagined lives to almost uniformly tragic ends, some decades later.
Darlow, Matt Holzfeind as the most craven opportunist of the Poles and Rebecca Sohn as a Jew who sticks it out by converting are among the most compelling in a collection of strong portrayals. But Slobodzianek loses dramatic tension by insisting on including every salient biographical detail—a common danger in dramatizing real lives, and confounding for fictional ones.