Review: ‘Everything Is Illuminated’ at Theater J

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A young Jewish American writer named Jonathan arrives by train in the Ukraine on a quest to find a woman named Augustine who helped his grandfather Safran escape the Nazis. He has only a faded photograph of them together and the name of a tiny town, Trachimbrod. But he must find her—he must—because she is the woman without whom he would not have been.

“He has come a long way to seek his past,” says Alex, the amiable young Ukrainian whom Jonathan has hired as translator.

“And I have gone a long way to escape mine,” says Alex’s gruff Grandfather, whom Jonathan has hired as driver. We know not yet what Alex’s Grandfather refers to, though we already have good reason to wonder what he did in the war. And the moment goes by fast—just one of countless breathtaking beats in an exquisitely written play.

Everything Is Illuminated—adapted by British playwright Simon Block from Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed debut novel—delves into the distance between Holocaust remembering and Holocaust forgetting. Between honoring the dead and disavowing why and how they died. Between the sorrow and the complicity. And incredibly, unforgettably, what comes shining through like literal light is a radiant emotional experience as heartrending as it is hilarious.

Yes, hilarious—not a word one might associate with such resolute remembrance.

Billy Finn, Alex Alferov, and Daven Ralston in Everything Is Illuminated. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

First off, Jonathan’s translator Alex is a randy dude with a nutty grasp of English, and as delivered in dialect by the commandingly comedic Alex Alferov, his not-quite-literate lines land laugh after laugh (“I implore you to forgive my speaking of English. I am not so premium with it”).

Second, Alex’s Grandfather, Jonathan’s driver, wears dark glasses, hobbles with a white cane, and appears to be blind. He’s not really, but this serves to unnerve Jonathan, as does the Grandfather’s sudden burst of anger. The Grandfather is a character whose full complexity comes to a shocking boil in a flashback in the second act, but in the beginning, Eric Hissom has him simmer to fascinating and fearsome effect.

The brainy, fish-out-of-water Jonathan is nicely played with earnest honesty by Billy Finn, who’s especially winning as the foil for the jokey setups. Notable among them is the horny, yapping, and flatulent dog (a puppet animated and voiced by Daven Ralston) that accompanies the threesome on their drive to Jonathan’s mystery destination.

Daven Ralson and Billy Finn in Everything Is Illuminated. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Ralson also appears in other supporting roles, including surly Waitress, crusty Hotel Keeper, sullen Petrol Attendant—each deftly individuated. But her immeasurable contribution to the magic of the play is as musician (playing lovely incidental interludes of her composition on stringed instruments) and as Brod, a maybe mythical muse to Jonathan when his writer’s imagination must fill in blanks that his journey cannot.

Several timelines interweave in the play, as well as shifts from naturalism to magical realism; not all is always as it seems. So it is that Jonathan encounters an Old Woman who lives alone in a small house one room of which has shelves full of photographs and other mementos in labeled boxes. In Nancy Robinette’s magnificent portrayal, the Old Woman delivers a heart-stopping story recalling what happened to the shtetl of Trachimbrod.

Old Woman: I am the only one remaining…
They were all killed…
Except for one or two who managed to escape…
You should never have to be the one remaining.

Billy Finn, Nancy Robinette, Alex Alferov, and Eric Hissom in Everything Is Illuminated. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Is she Augustine, the woman who saved Jonathan’s grandfather? Maybe, maybe not. But upon seeing Jonathan’s photograph of them together, she remembers Safran was the first boy she kissed.

Equally heart-stopping but even more horrifying is the story Hissom as Grandfather tells in which we learn what he did that he has tried to forget. “I am a good person who lived in a bad time,” he says to his grandson, trying to justify himself, trying to explain what, despite his intentions, got brutally passed down from father to son to son.

Grandfather: I didn’t want your father to grow up close to so much death. I wanted so much for him to live a good life, without death and choices and shame and guilt. Without guilt, Alex. Oh, to live without guilt!…
I wanted to remove your father from everything that was shameful. But I discovered that shame follows you like an infected dog…

The play’s theatrical mix of realism and invention comes alive in language so amazing it washes over one like waves. The stage arts too combine to make this a spectacularly engaging production.

Director Aaron Posner conducts each pulsebeat with an emotional reverence that resonates throughout the house. Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway enlarges upon the Old Woman’s shelves and makes of them a testament to the mind’s quest to retrieve meaning. Costume Designer Kendra Rai mixes rustic and real (for Alex, Grandfather, and others) with sublime and wished-for (the ethereal white gowns worn by Old Woman and Brod). Sound Designer Palmer Hefferan brings vibrant veracity to Jonathan’s arrival at the train station, and near the end Heffernan and Lighting Designer Jesse Belsky create cosmic effects with heart-stirring force.

Special kudos to Dialect Coach Nancy Krebs for achieving an astonishing layering of languages. Alex, when addressing Jonathan or the audience in his funny, fractured English, speaks with a thick Slavic dialect; yet when Alex, his Grandfather, and others talk among themselves in their native tongue, they do so with standard American inflection. The result, an aural delight, intriguingly echoes the levels of perspective at play.

Theater J Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr pursued the rights to stage Everything Is Illuminated with a determination that now pays off in a powerful production not to be missed. I know there will be many who will see it having read Foer’s book, but I came to the play cold. And with each plot surprise and poetically turned phrase, it swept me away. I absolutely loved it.

Running Time: Two hours 25 minutes, including one intermission.

Everything Is Illuminated plays through February 4, 2018, at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.