When death comes for me — and, as Markus Zusak's novel, "The Book Thief," makes very clear, death surely is coming for us all — I wouldn't mind if he were played by Francis Guinan.
Guinan, an ensemble member at the
As anyone in Chicago reading "The Book Thief" well knows (and, since this 2006 novel is the latest One Book, One Chicago entry, there are a lot of young people in Chicago currently reading "The Book Thief"), death is the narrator of Zusak's story about a young German girl caught up in the myriad horrors of
Zusak's novel is an excellent piece of writing, not least because it is constantly preoccupied with the question of the culpability of ordinary people for whom speaking up would most certainly have meant serious trouble. That dilemma — when are circumstances so extreme that you must cry out, even if it comes at great personal cost? — was certainly pervasive during
If you've not read the book (and you call yourself a Chicagoan?), its reluctant heroine, whose name is Liesel, is the Gentile child of communists who have been sent away by the Nazis, and thus her own family has been destroyed. But Liesel, now a foster child, luckily lands at the home of a German housepainter named Hans Hubermann and his wife Rosa (Amy J. Carle), who try their best not to attract attention even as they quietly hide away a young Jewish man (Max, played by Patrick Andrews) in their basement. The character of Hubermann, superbly played here by Mark Ulrich, is the most interesting in the book, for sure, as he is a man constantly churning around the relationship of responsibility to action. And events in this story turn on a cruel irony: the moment he does something small to help a stranger, it actually makes it less possible for him to do what matters more to the ones he's protecting. Such are the things you have to consider when deciding whether to speak up, especially if that means you must leave the game.
The adapter of the work, Heidi Stillman, does not find it easy to pack in all aspects of this complicated book, even though, at 2 hours, 15 minutes, this is one of the longer Young Adult shows Steppenwolf has produced. And I'd argue that Hallie Gordon's production is a tad under-produced by the standards of this program; there is a young-adult patina to the proceedings, even though the very best Young Adult shows at Steppenwolf have had no such glaze and still most assuredly have been for young adults. This one has some repetitive movement patterns and, well, not so great or potent of a design.
That said, the fundamentals of the acting and storytelling are sound indeed. The show surely lands with its audience. On Saturday afternoon, when I saw the show, there were many tears at the ennobling climax of the work. Guinan is just as rich as you would expect, and there is also an exceptionally unsentimental performance from Rae Gray (now a fine adult performer after a long history of kids' roles) as the titular book thief, so called because of her love of lifting volumes and then escaping into them. Andrews is also very moving throughout. In just the right, quiet way.
The novel does, I think, suggest more of a hostile Nazi environment on the street outside, more of the way tension co-exists with normalcy than the slightly softer dramatization manages. But one has to respect the clear intent here: to show, with feeling, that knowing what to do for the best is hard for everybody.
When: Through Nov. 11 (most non-school performances are on weekends)
Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes