What begins as a comic road trip of ancestral rediscovery takes a hairpin turn into tragic history as “Everything Is Illuminated” makes its Southern Californian stage debut courtesy of Santa Barbara’s Ensemble Theatre Company.
As in the Jonathan Safran Foer semi-autobiographical novel on which it’s based, this 2006 adaptation by playwright Simon Block chronicles the parallel family skeletons unearthed by its two principal characters.
Jonathan (Jeremy Kahn) is an assimilated American Jew whose obsession with his lost family heritage kicks into overdrive after learning that his Ukrainian immigrant grandfather escaped the occupying Nazis with the help of a local woman who might still be living.
Embarking on a quest to find her, Jonathan enlists a gregarious but decidedly underqualified, English-mangling tour guide, Alex (Matt Wolpe). Roughly the same age but polar opposites in every way, the two are forced to bridge their cultural schisms as they search for the lost village of Jonathan’s family origins against a stunning rural Ukrainian landscape by scenic designer François-Pierre Couture.
With Alex’s supposedly blind grandfather (Adrian Sparks) behind the wheel of their beat-up vehicle, the first act plays like a present-day Road comedy, with Alex and Jonathan as the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby team. Versatile Emily Goglia appears as multiple characters they encounter along the way.
The second act’s radical tonal shift into Holocaust legacy poses the play’s biggest challenge, and director Jonathan Fox adroitly navigates it with maximum impact. The pivot point is the introduction of luminous Anne Gee Byrd as the village’s sole survivor, resolutely preserving artifacts of the exterminated townspeople. Her life-changing revelations connect the threads not only of Jonathan’s family but of Alex and his grandfather’s as well.
The performers deliver an emotional wallop, but the show suffers the same problem inherent in adapting any literary work in which the manner of the telling is as integral as the story itself. Foer’s sprawling, distinctively stylized novel employed Alex and Jonathan as dual narrators. A streamlined 2005 film version by Liev Schreiber limited the focus to Alex’s point of view.
To its credit, Block’s play illuminates more of Jonathan’s internal journey, but that proves double-edged. In particular, his imagined lives of his distant ancestors and meditations on writing itself are steeped in literary eloquence — they read beautifully on the page but in live presentation remain stubbornly closer to recital than dramatic performance.
‘Everything Is Illuminated’
Where: Ensemble Theatre Company production at the New Vic, 33 W. Victoria St., Santa Barbara
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through April 28. Also 2 p.m. Saturday
Info: (805) 965-5400 or www.etcsb.org
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
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