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Photograph: Michael BrosilowRae Gray in The Book Thief at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

The Book Thief at Steppenwolf Theatre Company | Theater review

An adaptation tries to squeeze a 560-page YA novel about Nazi Germany into two hours.


Markus Zusak’s award-winning 2006 novel is set in Nazi Germany and narrated by Death. The Australian author, in other words, doesn’t soft-pedal darkness for his young-adult audience. Heidi Stillman’s new stage adaptation similarly pulls few punches: The narrator, referred to here simply as Him and played by Francis Guinan with a mournful curiosity, introduces us to 14-year-old Liesel (Rae Gray), who’s been separated from her mother and whose brother succumbs to Death on the journey to their new foster home.

Liesel’s not the only one her new family harbors; Hans (Mark Ulrich) and Rosa (Amy J. Carle) take in a Jew named Max (Patrick Andrews), the son of Hans’s best friend from the previous war, and secure him in their basement. From Hans and Max, Liesel receives lessons in reading and morality.

While Guinan provides a grounding presence as Him, Stillman’s script runs into the problem of so many novelistic adaptations. In trying to squeeze Zusak’s 560 pages into a couple of hours, the playwright rushes from episode to episode, with character development taking a back seat. Fine actors like Carle, Andrews and Nicole Wiesner (as the mayor’s wife, who makes a connection with Liesel) don’t get much time to dig deep into their portrayals, and even the terrific young Gray struggles to paint a complete portrait. Only Guinan and the impressive Clancy McCartney, as Liesel’s cocky love interest, arrive onstage fully formed.

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