Chicago Theater Review: THE BOOK OF JOSEPH (Chicago Shakespeare)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 5, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


In this world premiere of a newly commissioned and instantly topical new work, Chicago Shakespeare Theater makes it clear: Karen Hartman’s The Book of Joseph is not just another play about the Holocaust (not that that’s a bad thing). Yes, that once and future horror re-erupts, with painful “new” details confirming a curse. But this 150-minute puzzle play is as much about how the present reckons with an evil that history can’t contain. It does that by focusing like a laser on one man’s ambivalent loyalty and love for his father and his son.

Spanning three generations of a Jewish family (the Hollanders), the two-act tour de truth takes us from newly Nazi Krakow in Poland to 21st-century America. As it does, it shifts and twists our perceptions of innocence and survivor guilt, as well as immigration, deportation and anti-Semitism. The Book of Joseph is Hartman’s action meditation on the mutability of emotions over time. In compelling contrast, it opposes to sheer subjectivity the Adamite, non-negotiable nature of genocide. (No “alternative facts” lurk here.)

The play was adapted from a book which chronicled a real-life trove of numbered letters that Richard Hollander (Francis Guinan, combining disconcerting affability with telling remorse) found in a suitcase after his parents’ death in a car crash in 1986. Only after a delay of 18 years—dismaying his son Craig (Adam Wesley Brown), a researcher of the slave trade who wanted the truth told sooner and clearer—did Richard have the correspondence translated from Polish and German.

These 200 hundred-some letters—to and from Europe—detailed the attempts of Joseph (Richard’s father) to help victims escape the Shoah. But, wrenchingly, Joseph (Sean Fortunato, dignified despite despair) was helpless to save seven relatives, including his mother and three sisters. A gospel on genocide, “Joseph’s book” was published as Every Day Lasts a Year, the source for this show.

In the first act, ironically presented as a book promo for Richard’s revelations, the letters are fleshed out: Between 1939 and 1941 the Hollanders who could not escape endure the Nazi invasion and occupation of their homeland, confronting the ultimate disruption—displacement, relocation, and an unrecorded end. False happiness, like the prospect of visas to Nicaragua, dog but never divide the clan. Like the stages of dying, their reactions of hope, anger, denial, and bargaining (but never acceptance) speak for millions.

Testimonials from these refugees in their own country, plus video of the letters and of wartime Poland, depict agonizing “coping mechanisms” that inevitably recall the Franks in their Amsterdam attic. Joseph, it turns out, will be as haunted by the letters he didn’t get or write as by these meticulously preserved “screams without a tongue” from lost loved ones.

Across the Atlantic, Joseph perseveres: He struggles on Ellis Island to prove his right to come to America, despite kneejerk immigration restrictions that refused to acknowledge the Third Reich crisis and that hadn’t been expanded since 1924. But he is able to bring his first wife and a 14-year-old boy Arnold Spitzman (Brenann Stacker), who will later figure prominently in restoring Craig’s respect for his father. Joseph’s second wife, Vita Fischman (a sweet Patricia Lavery) really proves a keeper.

In the second act Craig all but takes over the stage, demanding that his father come clean on why he held back his privileged take on the Holocaust. (Again recalling the Franks, this all but alludes to Otto Frank’s initial concealment and supposed censorship of Anne’s famous diary.) Only when Craig meets one of the Schindler-like beneficiaries of his grandfather’s courage does he understand his father’s complex reticence.

A cynic might argue that Hartman’s first-act denial that The Book of Joseph will be another Anatevka or her second-act attempt to make the Holocaust relevant to the present as an inter-generational clash of conscience is a failure of nerve. The nearly lost letters, it can be argued, create theater enough.  But even with no statute of limitation on genocide, forgiveness or forgetfulness, maybe Hartman is right to bring the Hollanders’ saga back full circle to family friction just as it began in a bitter schism.

What’s not debatable is how, potent and targeted, Barbara Gaines’ inaugural staging keeps it real and, even better, current. A taut telling of many tales, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s welcome new work slams the past into the present until such petty distinctions become irrelevant. The 10-member ensemble run no more a gamut than the Hollanders’ aspirations amid atrocities deserve.

Inevitably, like the recent German cartoon depicting Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty, The Book of Joseph challenges America’s heart and soul, specifically our willingness to shelter the downtrodden, 77 years ago or tomorrow. The next Holocaust now has its play too on Navy Pier.

photos by Liz Lauren

The Book of Joseph
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier
ends on March 5, 2017
for tickets, call 312.595.5600 or visit Chicago Shakes

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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