Our Class, the searing, emotionally devastating, and unforgettable new production at Theater J, constitutes both a play and an enervating pedagogical exercise – a Holocaust-era case study in the moral degeneration of individuals in the context of societal descent into genocide and madness.
At first, the story, which chronicles the lives of ten Polish classmates – half are Jews, half are Catholics – as their pre-war friendships disintegrate amid the Nazi conflagration, seems instantly familiar. What more, after all, can anyone say about the Holocaust in 2012 without lapsing into redundancy and cliché? In fact, however, the inspiration for Our Class, brilliantly and passionately directed by Derek Goldman and written by Tadeusz Slobodzianek, stems from relatively recent revelations about Poland’s own participation in the genocide.
In 2000, Polish historian Jan Tomasz Gross published the landmark book Neighbors, which presented explosive evidence that refuted Poland’s decades-long denial that it played any role in the Holocaust. Chronicling the willful slaughter of 1,600 Jewish men, women and children by ordinary Polish citizens – in fact, the Jews’ own friends and neighbors – in Jedwabne in 1941, the book spurred immense controversy, generating both heated denials and soul-searching alike as Poles found themselves forced to reevaluate deeply ingrained national myths.
Our Class not only explore the events surrounding the 1941 massacre, which entailed herding the Jews into a barn and burning them alive, but also the attitudes of its perpetrators in the years and decades that preceded and followed it. In this context, the play analyzes the role of memory and guilt, the haunting of the present by the ghosts of the past, and the ability of childlike innocence to morph abruptly and perversely into something profoundly unspeakable.
An outstanding cast – Tim Gettman (Menachem), Heather Haney (Zocha), Laura C. Harris (Dora), Alexander Strain (Heniek), Mark Krawczyk (Zygmunt), Dana Levanovsky (Rachelka and Marianna), Joshua Morgan (Wladek), Sasha Olinick (Abram), Ashley Ivey (Jakub Katz), and Harlan Work (Rysiek) – flawlessly depicts the complex relationships between Poles and Jews in all their subtlety and inscrutability, telling the story both literally and figuratively. In many scenes, the actors narrate the events as they unfold onstage, thus highlighting both their immediacy and their newly emerging role in Poland’s historical consciousness as a factual event that warrants retelling. A blackboard at the rear of the stage further accentuates this theme by announcing the beginning of new scenes as “lessons” – Lesson I, Lesson II, Lesson III, and so on. We must know and we must learn, the play practically shouts, for the people of Poland have wallowed in ignorance and denial for far too long.
From a technical perspective, the play emphasizes simplicity and minimalism, allowing the human drama to take center stage. The set, designed by Misha Kachman, consists of a single bare-bones classroom, highlighting the production’s role as a form of moral instruction. Ivania Stacks’s unpretentious costumes beautifully capture the fundamental normality of the protagonists as they face predicaments that are anything but normal. Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lighting design subtly but effectively captures the presence of ghosts from the past that gradually come to haunt and torment the present
Running Time: Three hours, including one intermission.
Our Class plays through Nov. 4, 2012 at Theater J – at The Washington DC Jewish Community Center (DCJCC) – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.