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Theatre in Review: Vilna (Theatre at St. Clement's)

Seamus Mulcahy, Sean Hudick. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Vilna tells a story of such historical importance, bearing a message of such timeless relevance, that it is a great pity it hasn't been told more forcefully. The playwright, Ira Fuchs, who was inspired by a New York Times report about the discovery of an escape tunnel leading out of the Vilna ghetto in Lithuania, has spun a lengthy, sprawling, virtually Dickensian story tracking dozens of characters across a seventeen-year time frame. Tracing the dire fate of a Jewish community first caught in the crossfire of World War II and later made into fodder for the Holocaust, the plot consists of a parade of atrocities, each of which triggers a new set of desperate moral calculations. It is an enormous piece of material, a complex chronicle that would challenge the most sophisticated playwright. (And, even then, one might argue that it would be better served in a novel.) Fuchs, a playwright in his youth who has returned to the stage after many years working in software development, is in over his head.

A sincere and reasonably well-constructed work, Vilna is top-heavy with characters and incidents, the latter unfolding with a plodding determination that is the very opposite of drama. At the center of the narrative are Motke Zeidel -- son of Josef, a well-off glove manufacturer, and Naiomi, a doctor -- and Yudi Farber, an orphan whom the Zeidels take in. Josef and Naiomi can see which way the world is going and are determined to provide both boys with university educations. "You need to have a profession that is useful and valuable anywhere, in case you need to leave Poland," she says. Such fears are not unfounded: Josef has been beaten in the street by Polish army officers, and, in a quietly tense early scene, Naiomi, standing in for her ailing husband, enters a tense negotiation with a customs official, making a deal by giving away something that Josef doesn't have on offer.

It's the beginning of years of grinding uncertainty and increasing horror, as Vilna (later known as Vilnius), the city, is a flashpoint in all the major twentieth-century European conflicts. As the ghost of Motke, who serves as a sometime narrator, notes, "I was born in the city of Vilna in 1915 during World War One. After the war, between 1918 and 1920, Russia, Poland and Lithuania alternately occupied and claimed Vilna. It went from Russia to Lithuania to Poland to Lithuania to Poland to Russia and finally, to Poland, where it remained until 1939. The Russians, the Poles and the Lithuanians hated each other. And they all hated the Jews."

Survival in such a crucible of hatred becomes increasingly difficult. By the early 1930s, Josef's business is in decline, following the collapse of the Jewish Credit Union, his source of financing; he devises a workaround, transferring the business to Yudi, who, despite having undergone a bar mitzvah, is, technically, not Jewish, since his birth mother was a gentile. It is the first of many compromises and increasingly dubious decisions that will be made as the country slides into Fascism, followed by Soviet occupation and, later, invasion by Nazi Germany. Among other things, Yudi, working as a civil engineer -- his dream job since boyhood -- is horrified to discover that his company has been engaged by IG Farben to design a model for the slaughterhouses used in the death camps. Mustering the only form of resistance available to him, he builds numerous flaws into the design, a decision that will come back to haunt him. Motke eventually ends up hiding out in Naoimi's hospital, but both he and Yudi become part of the Judenrat, making what may be the ultimate devil's bargain: They help to administer a ghetto that is, in many ways, still a thriving community. (One character, a member of the SS, notes, "Look how good life is here! There are two theaters now and a symphony orchestra. You Jews love culture, don't you?"). But, working with Jacob Gens, a doctor and the head of the Judenrat, they are also responsible for turning over the infirm for extermination.

It's a terrible story, one that cannot be told too often, but here the playwright is overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. The result is a chronicle, delivered at a stately pace, that stubbornly refuses to be transmuted into drama. As scene follows scene, we don't get to know the characters better, as they are too busy delivering bulletins on the Reichstag fire, British immigration policy in Israel, and the policy of isolating Jewish students in local universities. The characters are given to offering stentorian moral summaries. Defending the Judenrat's collaboration with the Nazis, Gens says, "If God created monsters, he also created heroes. Thanks to everyone here we have saved countless lives and stabilized the ghetto. That twenty thousand people live, function, and even thrive in such conditions is nothing short of a miracle. We will not let anyone die of starvation. We will not let anyone die of disease. We will humiliate our oppressors with our dignity, humanity, and fortitude. They will know that we are their betters." He isn't entirely wrong, but the situation is far more complicated than that; the characters are caught in an awful paradox for which silent contemplation -- not speechmaking -- often seems the most appropriate response. Indeed, it would take the greatest of artists to attempt an understanding of characters such as Motke and Yudi, especially of the devastating psychological consequences of the choices forced upon them. This is simply beyond Fuchs' abilities. It doesn't help that the characters often talk as if they had just stepped away from a FaceTime conference: "The Lithuanian Military is pathetic. They do everything ass backwards," says the SS officer. Asking for an update on a killing project, he says, "Walk me through the process." Referring to a proposed rule by the Judenrat, Motke says, "You're going to get pushback from the orthodox." Joseph Discher's direction is a one-note affair, even when the action includes throat-cutting, attempted hanging, and other tortures. Sean Hudock and Seamus Mulcahy are fairly solid as Motke and Yudi, even if the script never gives them the space to develop fully realized characters. Top-billed Mark Jacoby, best-known for Show Boat and Ragtime on Broadway, has relatively little to do as Josef and the ghost of Motke, but, as always, he delivers. Carey Van Driest is frequently touching as Naiomi. Nathan Kaufman at least suggests the turmoil inside Gens as he struggles to save the ghetto from destruction. The non-Jewish characters are all cardboard villains, especially the cultivated Nazi swine right out of a Hollywood propaganda picture. As Weiss, the SS officer, Brian Cade is made to deliver lines such as "It's an occupational hazard. I find that after killing someone I have no appetite for meat."

Given the need to provide so many locations, the set designer, Brittany Vasta, has sensibly provided a simple unit layout that, nevertheless, requires moving a great deal of furniture about. The lighting, by Harry Feiner, is less than his best; at times, the actors' faces could use more coverage. Devon Painter's costumes are solid and Jane Shaw's sound design provides a variety of effects, ranging from train engines to bombs to a speech by Hitler.

"I was the last person alive who knew firsthand what happened in the forest of Ponar, just outside Vilna. You need to know." So says Motke's ghost at the beginning of the play. He's right: This is a story everyone should know, and the largely older crowd at the performance I attended seemed affected by it. But for it to reach a broad audience, Vilna would need to be far more effective as drama. By the time Motke, forced to dig up the bodies of the dead, makes a stunning, awful discovery, the effect is nil; we have been subjected to too many accounts of atrocities, presented inartfully. The more consequential the story, the greater the onus on the playwright: VilnaDavid Barbour

(25 March 2019)

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