Twelve years after it was first adapted for the stage by British playwright Simon Block, the play Everything Is Illuminated – based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer – has arrived at Theater J, where it now has audiences alternating between howls of laughter and stunned silence.
Much of the laughter comes in Act One, when a very earnest young American – who happens to be named Jonathan Safran Foer – sets out to find the woman who may have saved his grandfather’s life (and thus his mother’s and his own) during the Holocaust.
Armed with little more than a photograph, some money, a notebook and a pen, Jonathan – played to gullible perfection by Billy Finn – has hired a young Ukrainian guide to aid him in his quest.
Unfortunately, the guide has no qualifications at all, beyond his yearning to establish himself as a specialist in Jewish Heritage tours for rich Americans searching for their roots.
He also can’t drive, which is why he has forced his grandfather, who is presumably blind, to steer the car in search of a village that no longer exists.
Accompanying the threesome is a seriously deranged dog, identified as a “seeing eye bitch,” who can’t keep her paws off our hero. The dog is played by Daven Ralston with great comic effect. (In fact, Ralston’s range is astonishing, since—in addition to the flatulent dog—she also assumes about five other roles, some earthy and some surreal.)
The play begins at the railway station in Lvov, where Jonathan arrives, exhausted from the journey and horrified by the guides, who appear to have no knowledge of Trachimbrod, the shtetl (a Jewish village in the countryside) that his grandfather escaped.
Alex sports a conspicuously swollen eye. “Oh, Jesus!” says Jonathan, alarmed. “No, not Jesus, my father,” Alex replies, dismissing the bruise as a form of “playful abuse” from his father.
Essentially, the first act is a ‘road movie, an old-fashioned Hollywood device allowing two or three buddies – think of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour – wisecracking their way to Trachimbrod instead of Mandalay.
Here, instead of the usual comedians, we have a grifter, a gullible American and an alcoholic old man with a secret. The wisecracking is mostly Hollywood-via-Borscht Belt Schtick.
The grifter, whose inner decency emerges to reveal a likable if materialistic young man, is named Alex. He is portrayed with lusty bravado and great timing by Alex Alferov.
Eric Hissom is Alex’s grandfather, a surly old man with a secret. He doesn’t want to find Trachimbrod – the name of a real village in which most of the population was massacred – and we know why. Just as Jonathan is searching for a lost part of his past, this grandfather is trying to avoid it.
While the first part of the play is entertaining, the set-up is occasionally slow. That changes at the end of Act One, when the remarkable Nancy Robbinette, playing the old woman who may or may not hold the secret they seek, is discovered off to one side of the stage.
Robinette is astonishing. Her luminous face lights up the set even before the real lights go up. Suddenly, the ‘road movie’ comes alive. It is an electrifying moment.
In Act Two, the old woman’s house – described as no more than two rooms – is filled with light. A lace tablecloth is juxtaposed against a wall of shelves, full of boxes and bags. Out of the boxes comes a repository of lost possessions, of wedding rings and baby shoes, salvaged, along with their owners’ stories, from what had been a burial ground.
The old woman’s memories, which include a kiss from Jonathan’s grandfather, serve to illuminate the murder as well as the guilt of those who helped the Nazis to destroy the village.
But memory is only one part of Jonathan’s story. There is another layer here, beyond the past and the sometimes ludicrous present. This one is about the author’s process, in which make-believe and myth are artfully interwoven to create a whole new tale.
Daven Ralston, whom we’ve previously seen as a sultry waitress and a barking dog, is here transformed into the author’s muse. Floating around in a white gown, she is almost translucent, teasing the author into inventing new threads to fill in the holes in the original story.
Everything is Illuminated sheds light on a number of age-old questions. Are all murderers guilty? Are survivors all innocent? Can facts exist without fiction? Does the present exist without the past? Is tragedy even comprehensible without humor?
There is much to laugh about in this play. One of the funniest scenes is set in a dismal hotel, somewhere in the hinterland of Ukraine, where the would-be author, who is a vegetarian, tries to get meat-and-potatoes without meat. It’s a take-off on the scene in Five Easy Pieces, where Jack Nicholson tries to get a chicken salad sandwich on toast, without the chicken or the salad. It’s an old joke, but it’s hilarious.
Of course, “hilarious” – as my colleague, John Stoltenberg, remarks in his fine review of this play – is not a word that people usually associate with the Holocaust.
Yet the goal of Everything Is Illuminated is to shed light on the tragic, and to dredge out the hope behind the loss. That’s not an easy task. Luckily, Theater J was able to get Aaron Posner to direct it, pulling the strings and twisting the obvious bits to make us sit up and pay attention.
Posner, as most theater-goers know, is the multiple Helen Hayes Award-winning playwright and director whose visions, or versions, of the classics, ranging from District Merchant to No Sisters (based, respectively, on Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Chekhov’s Three Sisters), have been startling theater-goers for more than 20 years.
There are many startling events in this play. Some are suggested in the book. Others are simply reflected, as images in a mirror.
The show, which is based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s award-winning novel of the same name, has had only two productions since 2006. The first was at the Hampstead Theatre in northwest London, and the second, in 2013, was in Chicago. After that, it disappeared.
The reason the play took so long to make it to Washington was due to a tie-up in production rights, according to Adam Immerwahr, Theater J’s Artistic Director. He appealed to the author’s mother, who – happily for us – was able to extract it from the legal limbo in which it had resided.
Now all you have to do is see it!
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
Everything Is Illuminated plays through February 4, 2018, at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.