Chicago Theater Review: ELEGY (Victory Gardens)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 6, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Commemorating the 75th anniversary of “Kristallnacht,” the terrible nights of November 9-10, 1938 when Nazi thugs unleashed their most public assault on Jewish life and lives, this 70-minute one-act by Ron Hirsen creates an “elegy” from an unclaimed legacy. Earnestly staged by Victory Gardens founder Dennis Zacek in a sometimes insecure Chicago premiere, Elegy focuses on two Holocaust survivors living in New York 40 years ago. Husband and wife Helmut and Hilde (David Wohl and Iris Lieberman) deliver a heartfelt and very familiar lesson in post-traumatic redemption.

David Wohl and Bernard Beck in Ron Hirsen’s “Elegy” at Victory Gardens.

Flashbacks enlarge a situation that’s as simple as symbolic: A young Berliner frequenting the Café Julius, Helmut once wrote poems to his “red rose” Hilde. They were valentines to the world, delivered by way of the crusading “Jewish Voice” newspaper. Then came the cruelty: Discouraged by a helpless father (Bernard Beck) who urged him to silence the voices of the sufferers who surrounded them in Auschwitz, Helmut is now unable to read, let alone write, poems. (His Papa is a very recognizable martyr, an almost exact recreation of Herr Schultz in Cabaret, a German Jew who expects to be treated in that order.)

Justin Leider, Iris Lieberman and David Wohl in Ron Hirsen’s “Elegy” at Victory Gardens.

Completing Hirsen’s family in mourning is their frustrated son Jerry (Justin Lieder). Craving to be taken on his own terms, Jerry is sick of being treated like a “miracle child” whose existence can somehow soothe the loss of millions. He wants his father to return to life by acknowledging his poetry, restoring “voices” that will not go silent into that good night. Inevitably, a predictable breakthrough concludes the solid but generic plight of this fractured family.

Iris Lieberman and David Wohl in Ron Hirsen’s “Elegy” at Victory Gardens.

Apart from the play’s elegiac déjà vu, Wohl is almost too effective at conveying Helmut’s emotional repression. It’s easy for an audience to abandon hope that this dour man will ever warm up to the world. He creates a dramatic black hole that the anguished performances of Leider, Lieberman and Beck enlarge by contrast.

Happily, this possibly temporary lacuna doesn’t destroy, just blunts, the noble intentions of a conscientious play. Hopefully, it will yield to a more nuanced and evolving recovery before Elegy ends along with the month.

Iris Lieberman and Justin Leider in Ron Hirsen’s “Elegy” at Victory by Anthony Robert La Penna

Richard Christiansen Theater
Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln
scheduled to end on December 1, 2013
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