Theater Review: A massacre and its aftermath

By Lisa Brock Special to the Star Tribune on November 1, 2011

in 1941 the entire Jewish population of a small Polish town was herded into a barn that was then set alight.  This horrific event, its roots, and its aftermath are the subject of Tadeusz Slobodzianek's "Our Class," which opens Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's 17th season.

Responsibility for the atrocity was initially assigned to the Nazis.  New research, however, recently brought to light that the deed was done by the Polish villagers themselves -- acquaintances, neighbors, and classmates of the victims. In "Our Class" which spans a time period from 1925 to 2003, Slobodzianek uses 10 characters to explore the complex layers of bigotry, loyalty, fear and anger that fed this slaughter of 1,600 people.

In the play's opening scene the characters are children, innocently oblivious to the fact that five of them are Jewish and the other five Catholic.  Awareness increases as they approach adolescence.  Jokes and comments take on a bitter edge.  In one scene, the Jewish children are relegated to the back of the room during Catholic prayers.  When first the Russians and then the Nazis occupy Poland, tensions bubble to the surface in a murderous turn of events.  

It's difficult to single out any one performance from the solid ensemble under Miriam Monasch's direction, but Elena Giannetti gives a particularly striking turn as Dora, transitioning from giddy teenager to dissatisfied wife to sudden victim.  The scene in which she describes being raped by three former classmates is a compelling mix of bewilderment and horror.  Caleb Carlson is another standout as a young Catholic half in love with Dora yet wholly consumed by a politics of hatred.  Michael Jurenek offers up a coldly calculating Zygmunt, playing his former classmates against each other for his own gain.  

Slobodzianek doesn't so much attempt to shock as refuse to soften hi unvarnished story.  "Our Class" offers no panaceas of final redemption through forgiveness or the triumph of goodness over evil.  Instead, it unflinchingly details profoundly damaged survivors who spend the rest of their lives groping for ways to cope with the horror of their pasts.  The character played by Candace Barrett Birk, saved from the fate of her fellow Jews by marriage to a Catholic Pole, chooses to remain in the village for the rest of her life, enduring daily humiliations and deep-seated anti-Semitism of her husband and former "classmates." Like all the characters in this play, she's deeply conflicted, embodying shame, guilt and complicity.

"Our Class" is a bleak and painful piece of work that offers no answers, but raises plenty of questions and will leave its audiences shaken.