Early on in Our Class, the harrowing epic by Tadeusz Slobodzianek currently playing at Theater J, young Jewish schoolgirl Dora (Laura C. Harris) receives a Valentine from her Catholic classmate, Rysiek (Harlan Wolk). He painstakingly crafts it out of pink paper, cuts it into the shape of a heart, and sprays it with perfume before stashing it in her bag (the missive’s resemblance to Elle Woods’s resume is one of the play’s few moments of levity). Only another classmate intercepts it first, and Rysiek is cruelly mocked. “I felt bad for him,” Dora tells the audience, “but what could I do?”
This refrain of “what could I have done?” is one that recurs with heartbreaking frequency during the show, which tells the story—based on true events—of ten Polish classmates growing up during the rise of Hitler, the Soviet occupation, and World War II. But the villains of the piece aren’t the mustache-twirling, almost comically menacing Nazis so prevalent in any art that deals with the period. Instead they’re the basest elements of each of the ten young characters, and the inexplicable prejudices within them that lead to acts of unspeakable horror. If blood is thicker than water, Slobodzianek seems to suggest, the bonds of childhood friendship are more like cobwebs—easy to sever, but impossible to shake off altogether.
Director Derek Goldman deserves kudos for the cast he’s assembled, because the ten players, most of whom remain onstage for much of the show, are exceptionally strong both during individual scenes and as an ensemble. The play (the English translation of which, by Ryan Craig, ran to critical acclaim at London’s National Theatre in 2009) is structured much like a school day, divided into 14 different “lessons,” or periods of history. Amid Misha Kachman’s deceptively simple set of pastel-painted floorboards, wooden chairs, and a flimsy-looking table, we see the ten friends go from childhood all the way to death. But most of the show is set during a period of history Poland would rather forget—and did, for many years, until a documentary and a book brought them back into the light. In 1941, the entire Jewish population of Jedwabne, a small town close to the border of what’s now Belarus, was massacred in a single day—not by the Nazis, as the story went for so many years, but by the town’s own Catholic residents. “We knew them,” says one character during the carnage. “They were our neighbors.”
Neither Slobodzianek nor Goldman seems to be overly interested in what motivates people to commit such awful acts, although it’s made clear that the Catholic townsfolk plundered gold, money, and property from the people they murdered. Instead, the show asks again and again how people could simply stand by powerlessly and watch. None of the characters seems to be particularly equipped with a strong moral core, with the possible exception of Abram (Sasha Olinick), the lone escapee sent to live in America before the pogrom takes place. Instead, when retribution does occur, it’s largely because the wounded are hungry for revenge, making it less than satisfying to observe.
At more than three hours, this is a play of epic proportions, though with the exception of a few final scenes it rarely drags. Goldman finds a balance between tearing at our heartstrings—as he does in harrowing scenes of rape and violence, brilliantly choreographed by Emma Jaster and fight choreographer Joe Isenberg—and making us laugh through the sheer absurdity of life and death. “Thou shalt not kill,” says Heniek (Alexander Strain), as he’s roughly drilling the catechism into Rachelka (Dana Levanosky), the town’s lone Jewish survivor, who’s forced to convert to Catholocism to survive. Bearing in mind that Heniek helped set ablaze a barn full of women and children just a few minutes earlier, it’s almost grotesquely comic.
This is a deeply moving show, and one that succeeds in painting a haggard portrait of humanity at its lowest, but Goldman also punctuates each lesson by bringing the classmates together in song. The musical interludes are profoundly beautiful but also a reminder that even the cruelest wrongdoers were innocent children once. When characters die, we see them remove their shoes before retiring to sit quietly at the back of the stage, a watchful, if powerless, presence. The use of shoes to represent souls—something that’s done equally powerfully at the Holocaust Museum in DC—is quietly humanizing, and something of an antidote to the pitiless degradation the show takes as its sad but worthy subject.
Our Class is at Theater J through November 4. Running time is about three hours, with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets ($45 to $60) are available via Theater J’s website.