A devastating first act somewhat diminishes the smaller-stakes second in Karen Hartman’s semihistorical new play.
Fair warning: You might lose count of how many times a chill runs down your spine during the world premiere of The Book of Joseph at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, directed by Barbara Gaines. It’s a documentary play—or at least it’s a play that begins as a documentary play—that uses the very real, very heartbreaking letters of one Jewish family, the Hollanders, to tell the story of the Holocaust in real time. From the play’s opening moments, it’s so clear that the pain and suffering and death about to be visited upon the family of Joseph Hollander (Sean Fortunato, stunning) by his mother (played by Glynis Bell) and sisters and nieces, who do not heed his cries to come with him and leave Poland immediately, could have been avoided. If only they could see what we see. If only they could know what we know. If only they could understand what was happening to them as it was happening—before it was too late.
The first Hollander we meet in The Book of Joseph is not actually Joseph, but his son, Richard—played here by Francis Guinan, an actor who remains Chicago’s greatest natural resource. The real Richard Hollander collected his family’s letters—ones that he only discovered after his father and mother both died—into a book called Every Day Lasts a Year. The play, written by Karen Hartman, is presented as Richard giving a talk on his book, with most (but clearly not all) of the words the characters speak coming directly from Hollander family letters. Joseph does manage to leave Poland just days ahead of Hitler’s army, but his journey is not an easy one. Rerouted from Portugal to New York, he finds an America that is unwilling to accept him as a refugee. It’s like reading a history book made entirely out of mirrors. As Joseph’s family slowly succumbs to the crushing weight of the Reich’s oppression, Joseph moves heaven and earth to try and get them out, even though he’s only one step away from being sent back to certain death himself.
And then, just before the intermission break, everything changes. From the very moment that Richard’s son Craig (Adam Wesley Brown) enters from the audience to interrogate his father’s airbrushed version of their family’s history, The Book of Joseph starts to fold in on itself. It transforms into a piece about family secrets, and about the pain that men—especially fathers and sons—try their damnedest to shield from one another. It becomes about the impulse to create mythic, perfect heroes, when just everyday heroes will do. And it becomes, with quickly diminishing returns, about how to be an ethical historian.
It’s not there’s anything wrong with these themes. It’s that, after the sweeping, tragic scope of the play’s first act, the relative smallness of the second act simply can’t compare. If the two stories, the one set in 1939 (or thereabouts) and the one set in 2017, had been more interwoven, then perhaps the two could better coexist. Instead, the bifurcated nature of the play’s story does few favors for Richard’s half of the tale. The revelation that parts of Joseph’s story are not entirely truthful—that Richard basically hypothesized them—falls flat when it’s presented as a sort of twist. (The very idea of a “twist” does not sit well with the gravity of the play’s subject matter.) Richard’s story is an interesting one, but it cannot stand on its own like this next to Joseph’s. After all, the play is called The Book of Joseph for a reason. It’s Joseph’s tale, and his family’s, that so desperately needs to be heard, not the ethical quandaries of having turned their story into a book. Richard’s story, while touching, only ever feels like an addendum.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater. By Karen Hartman. Directed by Barbara Gaines. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.