In graduate school, I read Jan Gross’ award-winning book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland for one of my European history classes. I remember being struck by Gross’ ability to weave together a rigorous socio-political examination of an unspeakable massacre that unfolded in that non-descript town on July 10, 1941, including how it happened and why, with what was essentially a compelling character-driven narrative. It was the best of academic research and story-telling. Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s Our Class, an epic play based on Gross’ work, also examines the ‘before and after’ of Jedwabne massacre, but with a slightly different lens; it is compelling and emotional to its core.
Now in production at Theater J (with an English version by Ryan Craig), Our Class follows a group of ten Jewish and Catholic classmates in the small town of Jedwabne, Poland over an 80-year period beginning in the 1920s. As Soviet and German forces occupy the country in the late 1930s, their life stories become less defined by common friendships and dreams of what they want to be when they grow up and more defined by their own ethnic and religious identities. When the Jewish population of the town increasingly becomes a target of political aggression, the classmates arrive at a crossroads. One of the Jewish students leaves for America, others become victims of religious and ethnically-driven violence (including acts perpetrated by their own classmates) in the town, and others still form bonds with their Catholic classmates and, in the end, survive the mass killings and violence. One particular incident where 1600 Jews are burned to death in a barn at the hands of their own neighbors proves to be a defining life event for many of the classmates- some of which are directly involved either as victims or perpetrators. Originally blamed on Nazi forces, this massacre continues to haunt the living for the rest of their lives and influences their life paths.
Under the direction of Derek Goldman, a ten-member cast of local actors uniformly shines as the classmates and provide Washington audiences with a master class in compelling dramatic acting. Slobodzianek/Craig have provided these actors three-dimensional, fully-fleshed out, characters to portray and they certainly rise to the occasion. Each character arc is evident and although the narrative is in and of itself dramatic and heart wrenching, the acting is virtually never overwrought or cartoonish. The relationships between the characters are also quite believable and realistic.
There are no weak links in the cast, or even standouts - a good thing in this kind of play. Tim Gettman (Menachem), Heather Haney (Zocha), Laura C. Harris (Dora), Alexander Strain (Heniek), Mark Krawczyk (Zygmunt), Dana Levanovsky (Rachelka/Marianna), Joshua Morgan (Wladek), Sasha Olinick (Abram), Ashley Ivey (Jakub Katz), and Harlan Work (Rysiek) all carry the show equally. I will resist the temptation to describe each of their contributions (or else this review will be longer than James Joyce’s Ulysses), but I do want to mention several highlights.
Although Gettman can tread the line between being cartoonish and realistically awkward at times, he excels equally with Menachem’s comedic and dramatic moments. His humor in some of the initial scenes juxtaposes nicely with his intense acting later on- particularly where Menachem interrogates his former classmates who perpetrated violence against his wife, Dora, and other Jews in the town. Haney, likewise, proves she is exquisitely capable of portraying a girl who never wanted to be a hero, but did what she could to save several of her classmates. Zocha’s realization near the end of her life of how her actions in the 1940s shaped who she became and how she’s viewed by others, offers one of the most compelling moments in the play thanks to Haney’s fine acting.