There are a lot of Holocaust stories out there. The need to tell them is understandable, but it can feel like experiencing another one requires a girding of the emotions and mind. Theater J’s well-staged and enjoyable show “Everything Is Illuminated” — based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer — sidesteps that emotional toll with its dark comedic touches.
The story revolves around the character of Jonathan Safran Foer — played here with manic, neurotic energy by Billy Finn — who goes to Ukraine to find his grandfather’s village, Trachimbrod, and the woman, Augustine, who saved his grandfather’s life during the Holocaust. He is joined on the trip by his translator, Alex (Alex Alferov), a chauvinistic, yet essentially good-hearted, young Ukrainian whose English is a literary mishmash of mixed idioms and pseudo-homonyms (when Jonathan calls him a “wise man,” he responds with, “In America, that would make me ‘wise guy,’ no?”); Alex’s grandfather (Eric Hissom) as their driver, a man who fakes blindness to be left alone and whose connection to Jonathan’s journey is slowly revealed; and Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., the grandfather’s failed — and, since he’s not blind, unnecessary — guide dog.
A parallel plot attempts to show Jonathan’s writing process, with characters he’s imagining from a long ago Trachimbrod playing out as actual characters on stage who pester Jonathan into continuing their story.
The first act is more or less an odd couple road trip tale, with the unlikely group of characters clashing and, slowly, starting to understand each other and their motivations. Alex serves as the audience’s narrator, breaking the fourth wall to characterize situations and move along some exposition.
The show has a smart solution for the language barriers — Alex, when speaking “English” to the audience or Jonathan, does so with Alferov’s impressively consistent Eastern European accent. But when Alex is speaking “Ukrainian” to his grandfather or other Ukrainian characters, he speaks unaccented English as a stand-in with Finn as Jonathan often demanding translation afterward.
The interplay between Alex and Jonathan is playful, and the actors have a good rapport. Their odd couple friendship doesn’t feel forced, each bending just enough to allow for understanding — even among all the misunderstandings.
The second act is not as funny and brings the real pathos of the story. They finally meet a woman who may or may not be Augustine, but either way, she holds catharsis — of a sort — for Jonathan. There are not always easy, or even findable, answers to where we came from, the play suggests. Sometimes, the journey is the answer. To this theatergoer, the slowly unfolding story of Alex’s grandfather’s past held the most interest. Jonathan’s quest for family history is the catalyst for the cast’s trip down memory lane, but Hissom compellingly and empathetically renders Alex’s grandfather’s grappling with a war-torn past, difficult choices and a cycle of shame and violence. (Many an eye shimmered with tears during his account.)
The imagined characters of Jonathan’s Trachimbrod story were less successful, which likely had more to do with the source material than any choices on Theater J’s part. They didn’t really have enough stage time for the audience to become invested in their story, and the connections between the two plots never fully became clear. The intention seemed to be to have the characters as stand-ins for Jonathan working through his thoughts and feelings on the trip, but it fell a little flat. This was especially true of an assault in Act 2 that came across as gratuitous and was not justified in the story — a moment of shock value at the expense of a chance to process the collective tragedy of Trachimbrod.
That said, the show as a whole is done well. The set is sparse and used economically in a way that feels true to the show’s themes. And the actors are uniformly good. The choice to have actors not in the scene sometimes appear to play soft guitar — or lute — in the background was distracting at first, but quickly became a nice soundtrack to heavy scenes.
Theater J is only the third to put on this show, after a run in the United Kingdom and in Chicago. Though there is no shortage of compelling and important Holocaust stories, “Everything Is Illuminated” felt like it had something new to offer, even if not every aspect worked as well as it could.
The adaption presents a story both historic and contemporary and it is a good fit for a place like Theater J.
“Everything Is Illuminated” runs through Feb. 4. For ticket information and show times, visit theaterj.org