Our Class

by Tadeusz Słobodzianek
english version by Ryan Craig
directed by Blanka Zizka
October 12, 2011November 13, 2011

City Paper's Our Class Review

It's fair to ask, after seeing the Wilma Theater's American première of Tadeusz Slobodzianek's Our Class, if we're responding more to the historical event than the play based on it. Simply recounting the 1941 massacre of 1,600 Jews in Jedwabne, Poland — blamed on Nazis, but eventually proven to be the work of their Catholic neighbors — produces a visceral reaction of dismay, despair and disgust. Poles still argue about the number murdered (as if killing only 200 was somehow less heinous), and anti-Semitism persists.

Crafting all this into a play spanning 80 years is no easy task. Slobodzianek's script, translated by Ryan Craig, bases some characters on historical figures, but invents their shared circumstances: Five Jewish, five Catholic, they begin as congenial classmates in 1926, gradually fractured by ingrained prejudices and outside pressures.

Director Blanka Zizka assembles a strong cast whose subtle aging is superbly realized without makeup or costume changes. Marsha Ginsberg's set seals the action on a dirty plain scattered with chairs and dead tree stalks, surrounded by imposing black walls. A large translucent structure morphs from a quaint schoolhouse to the barn where Jews are burned alive, and later a glowing purgatory where the dead wander restlessly. Thom Weaver's eerie lighting sculpts with stark fluorescents and audience-illuminating floods.

The characters' rich stories weave together to reveal contrary perspectives simultaneously. When Dora (Emilie Krause) is raped by three former classmates in the frenzy preceding the mass killing, we hear all four's inner thoughts and feelings, amplifying the horror by making us identify with all sides.

Our Class ' first act ends with 1941, leaving 60 years to cover after intermission. Nothing later is as harrowing as the massacre, of course, but Zizka's production shapes a different sort of suspense, as we learn how both survivors and perpetrators cope. Wladek (Ed Swidey) marries Jewish heiress Rachelka (Kate Czajkowski), forcing her conversion. Zocha (Krista Apple) hides Menachem (Ross Beschler) through the war, but is persecuted years later in America when other Poles learn that she helped Jews. One classmate, Abram (Michael Rubenfeld), escapes to America in 1937 and becomes a rabbi. He recites a long list of relatives lost to the Holocaust, but is nevertheless stricken when he learns of his classmates' horrific ends; near his own finale, however, his long list of descendants proves inspiring. Life is bleak, hard, raw — yet, much like this production, ultimately triumphs.