Chicago Theater Review: EVERTHING IS ILLUMINATED (Next Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 2, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


“With writing, we have second chances,” declares Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything Is Illuminated, his well-received and dauntingly complex first novel from 2002. Taking leaps that have nothing to do with faith, this self-reflexive look at how writing about an event serves many different truths begins with a credo that fits theater too: “No one arrives on the face of the Earth from nowhere. We’re each the latest page in a book stretching back, and inspiration for pages to come.” Every drama inevitably links to a greater whole we spend our lives trying to fathom: It’s never long enough.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Next Theatre's “Everything is Illuminated”

It’s well that Foer embraces so transcendent and therapeutic an ethic, since the retroactive subject of the novel’s key journey is the Holocaust.

British playwright Simon Block’s stage adaptation compresses Foer’s sprawling, time-shifting novel into the Jewish-American author’s actual and metaphorical search for Augustine. She’s the brave woman who in 1943 saved Foer’s Ukrainian grandfather from extermination by the Nazis who would eradicate his home village of Trachimbrod. (With his wife, he wandered, shoeless and desperate, until they reached America.)

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Next Theatre's “Everything is Illuminated”

There is wry cross-cultural humor and delicious details in this stage version and Devon de Mayo’s earnest staging for Next Theatre Company, but the urgency behind Jonathan’s voyage, let alone any sense of its success, is never felt, while the ending is almost too powerful to process.

Played against Grant Sabin’s delightful giant Cornell boxes displaying the things Jonathan sees on his trek, the story moves the young writer (Brad Smith in a bravura role) from Prague to Kiev to rural and xenophobic Ukraine where Americans, like all strangers, are distrusted, envied and fleeced. Jonathan entrusts himself to the very conditional care of his dweebish young translator Alex Perchov (Alex Goodrich, amusing in his convoluted English and utterly unearned self-confidence) and their driver, Alex’s half-blind, crusty grandfather (William J. Norris in what proves to be a lacerating role), who has secrets (apparently Ukraine’s greatest natural resource).

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Next Theatre's “Everything is Illuminated”

Along with flashbacks to 1791 and 1804, where Jonathan discovers the pleasant and painful truths about his ancestors Brod (Sasha Gioppo) and Yankel (H.B. Ward), Foer and Block indulge in some “fish out of water” fun over Jonathan’s ignorance of Eastern European mores, the stinky dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. who pesters him relentlessly, the boredom endless vistas of flat fields, and their astonishment that Jonathan won’t eat meat.

There are sad and serious discoveries too: Jonathan discovers how the abuse Alex suffers from his dad seems to flow from a terrible but comprehensible betrayal that the grandfather committed years before. Though Foer himself never did find the old lady who made his existence possible by saving his grandfather, the writer improves on reality. He meets an old lady, the last Jew to survive the razing of Trachimbrod, whose still-agonizing memories unearth equally horrific revelations about the final days of this forgotten shtetl. This reminder of the appalling inhumanity of the eastern Holocaust is both necessary and, tragically, familiar.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Next Theatre's “Everything is Illuminated”

Less palpable in the play is what drives Jonathan’s identity quest, as well as gains from what he learns. His final valedictory speech – a glowing description of how sexual intercourse illuminates the earth into outer space and how people persist through that lasting light – seems too radiantly consolatory, given the unspeakable horrors that precede it. Whatever “second chances” Jonathan Foer achieved by returning to his roots remain achingly elusive. (I guess you had to be there.)

But there’s no equivocation about the six splendid performances that de Mayo inspires – accents, action, expressions, everything. If storytelling is worth more than the lessons learned and the journey counts more than the destination, Everything Is Illuminated casts its light on a vast and unforgivable darkness.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Next Theatre's “Everything is Illuminated”

photos by Michael Brosilow

Everything is Illuminated
Next Theatre Company in Evanston
scheduled to end on March 31, 2013
for tickets, call 847-475-1875 x2 or visit

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