You've doubtless pondered the role that chance plays in life — who wins, who loses, who lives, who dies. “Everything is Illuminated,” the moving new play on offer at the Next Theatre in Evanston, ponders an especially intriguing piece of happenstance. It follows a young Jewish American as he journeys back to the Ukraine in an attempt to find the woman who, one day years ago, saved his grandfather from the Nazis, which means, of course, also finding the woman to whom he owes his entire existence.
The man at the center of this story of a personal quest, a quirky dramatic adaptation by the British writer Simon Block of the very personal and emotional debut novel by Jonathan Safran Foer (an American who, incidentally, also wrote “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”), needs help. He knows nothing of Eastern Europe. And thus he goes online and hires a pair of entertaining Ukrainians, a grandfather and grandson with limited English skills — and a flatulent dog named Sammy Davis Jr., Jr. — who have set themselves up in business as “heritage guides.” Or, as they describe their work in the play, as people “who take curious Jews where they want to go.” They like the word “Jew,” repeating it constantly, as in, “The Jew says” or “The Jew wants to ….” Whether that's lingering anti-Semitism or mere matter-of-fact acknowledgement of difference (or both) is one of the open questions of the night.
Either way, the curious Jonathan, played by Brad Smith, very much wants to find the shtetl of Trochenbrod (essentially a freestanding Jewish town in the middle of the Western Ukraine), the real-world site of wartime horrors that seems to have vanished from the current map. This disappearance is not merely physical, nor was it entirely the consequence of Nazi oppression. A young American might very much want to go on a trip of self-discovery, but back in the Old Country, where those saving their own skins outnumbered the heroes, forgetting became an equally conscious and determined act. Hence the cleansing of the maps of a town that proved of great interest to the Nazis.
“He's come a long way to seek his past,” says Alex, the cheery young Ukrainian entrepreneur, pushing things along. “And I have come a long way to escape mine,” says his caustic grandfather, shuddering at the very thought of confronting one moment in one day years ago, a single instant that cascaded down through multiple generations.
Even before you hear that clue, you'll already have figured out from the generational signposts alone that the quest of Jonathan and the past of Alex's grandfather will end up being somehow entwined. But that does not make this story uninteresting. On the contrary, Block's fluid adaptation takes the complex narrative structure of the novel and, a few clumsy flashbacks aside, manages to find a viable dramatic structure that director Devon De Mayo — doing some of the most frank and truthful work of her Chicago career — turns into a very warm and involving piece of theater that makes excellent use of Next's notoriously challenging space. That's partly thanks to a collage-like set from Grant Sabin, who also designed “The Glass Menagerie” at Mary-Arrchie Theatre and is one of the most interesting young designers currently working in Chicago. Nick Keenan's soundscape is a potent match.
De Mayo deftly navigates the tone of this piece, seen for the first time in the U.S. at Next. Unlike most stories with this setting, “Everything is Illuminated” (the 2005 film version starred Elijah Wood) is intended to be funny. And so it is. Smith's brittle Jonathan is an admirably unsentimental creation, full of the kind of personal neuroses that not only make the character more complex, but illuminate this central thesis, which is that none of us start our own story on the day of our birth; we merely write a chapter in a longer inter-generational narrative. Although he is subtler here than I've seen him before, Alex Goodrich is very amusing, and credible, as Alex, a fellow who favors phraseology like “I'm eating slice after slice of humble pie.” He is, arguably, playing an Eastern European stereotype, but it's gently and affectionately drawn, and ultimately the character proves to be capable of more than we first expect. After all, had Jonathan's grandfather been hidden in a Gentile family, as were some of the kids from Trochenbrod, Jonathan could have been Alex's Ukrainian best friend. It was very close.
Two veteran actors are on hand when the play reaches the past and its darker themes kick in. William J. Norris holds his fire for much of the evening, barking his way through the Ukrainian grandfather role in his usual kind of persona. But when it really matters, Norris unleashes a furious monologue of bitterness and regret that plunged the entire theater into silence on Monday night. You had the distinct sense the avuncular Norris had been waiting for such a moment for several years, and the intensity of his opportunistic grab really pulls you up short. At that moment, Norris is reunited with an old Ukrainian named — well, I won't spoil the intrigue. Suffice it to say she's played by Ann Whitney, who commands all the moral force the character needs.
“Everything is Illuminated,” which also features the very lively Sasha Gioppo and H. B. Ward, should do well up at Next. This is a thoughtful, nuanced piece of theater that takes a familiar theme and makes it at once strange and familiar. It is true to the specifics of its situation, but also reflective on the perils of memory, the longevity of regret, and the complex business of both acknowledging our inherent connection to, and asserting our independence from, whatever it was our relatives either did or did not do, far away and long ago.
'Everything Is Illuminated' runs through March 31 at Next Theatre, Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston; running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes; tickets: $30-$40 at 847-475-1875 or nexttheatre.org
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