National Jewish Theater

The controversy that Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol generates seems to spring from his unwillingness to turn away from the truth. His play The Soul of a Jew is about Otto Weininger, a misogynistic, anti-Semitic turn-of-the-century Jewish author Hitler called “my favorite Jew.” When it was produced by the Haifa Municipal Theatre in 1982, the Haifa Rabbinate quickly denounced it as “full of blasphemy and deformity, depravity and Jewish self-hatred.” Sobol countered in an interview years later that the play explores “what it means to be a victim of hatred, the ways one interiorizes it and becomes one’s own enemy.”

Sobol’s brilliant epic Underground, now onstage at the National Jewish Theater, deals with human beings struggling to survive in a moral vacuum. The play is mostly set in the hospital of the Jewish ghetto in Vilna, Poland, in 1943. The Nazis have proclaimed Jewish births to be illegal; pregnant women, if discovered, will be shot along with their husbands. Ghetto inhabitants have also begun to hear stories about mass executions of young, healthy Jews at Ponar, a nearby resort town. The central action of the play revolves around doctors Sonya Solodova (Lucy Childs) and Berka Weiner (Joe Van Slyke), who are trying to hide a typhus epidemic from the Nazis by inventing phony symptoms for their patients. Their cause is urgent: when typhus broke out among the Jews, in another nearby town, the Nazis burned the hospital to the ground, patients, staff, and all.

Sobol dramatizes the story with great clarity and passion and a good deal of extraordinarily dark humor. And at every turn he challenges his characters with heartbreaking moral dilemmas. Judith (Jackie Katzman), one of the hospital workers, discovers she is pregnant and refuses to have an abortion even though a pregnancy is an execution, not only for her but for the man she loves. Jacob Gens (Craig Spidle), a Jew put in charge of the ghetto by the Nazis, must turn over a regular quota of Jews for execution; when the Nazis ask for children, Gens bargains to offer up old people instead, hoping the Jewish community will support his decision. Dr. Weiner does nothing as one of his colleagues, the unscrupulous Dr. Lishafsky (Lee R. Sellars), is carted away for execution, even though just minutes before Weiner had risked his job–and perhaps his life–to keep a perfect stranger from suffering a similar fate. In one of the most arresting moments of the play Weiner concludes, “We should be ashamed that we are still alive.”

Sobol is unrelenting in the moral demands he places on the characters. Choices between good and evil don’t exist: every choice is morally corrupt on some level, for the reality of their situation makes a mockery of principle. Yet Underground isn’t dull and depressing: it’s a thrilling, even inspiring work of uncompromising theatricality. And Sobol never lets us forget that evil springs from the same human capacity that creates good; we relate just as easily to the disturbingly charismatic Nazi commandant Kittel (Paul Traynor) as we do to the heroic Dr. Weiner. As Kittel himself states, “Every man has within him the range of all possible human types.” To his credit, Sobol never reaches definitive conclusions. Instead he makes an unimaginable situation seem more real by examining how the human spirit does under such crushing weight.

National Jewish Theater’s production, under the direction of B.J. Jones, takes quite a bit of time to find its feet (though the performance I saw was a preview). The first act never quite takes focus. Part of the problem may be a handful of folk songs inserted rather offhandedly that do little to move the play forward; they simply illustrate tensions that are already apparent in the drama.

More problematic is the company’s broad acting style. Characters generally wear their emotions on their sleeves, playing the tragedy or heroism of the moment instead of letting the drama develop. Spidle, for instance, delivers nearly all of his lines in the same sharp tone, adding emphasis with an extended index finger that repeatedly points at nothing. Since everything seems equally urgent, there’s no emotional buildup. This overly emotional style also steamrollers the lyrical quality of Sobol’s text. Lines like “Horror upon horror, the darkness of Egypt at high noon. . . Stand firm, children” degenerate into melodrama when forced out at the height of emotion.

The only actors who don’t take this tack are Childs and Van Slyke, whose quiet, reserved approaches make them credible from the very beginning. While the other actors work hard to demonstrate the absurdity of the situation, Childs and Van Slyke understand that the absurdity is implicit and work instead to maintain a sense of normalcy. It’s only through this opposition that the true horror of the situation becomes apparent.

Fortunately the cast rein themselves in for the second act, and Underground reaches extraordinary heights. Even with Jones’s occasionally problematic staging–the big confrontation scene between Solodora and Weiner, exquisitely acted, is all but lost against a wall stage right–the production gains focus and momentum.

Much of the success of the second act is due to the subtlety and sophistication of Childs and Van Slyke. Solodova’s attempt to maintain a professional tone while describing Weiner’s somewhat embarrassing penchant for sucking on her toes–one of the few pleasures she has received in years–is both extraordinarily funny and suffused with the tenderest of emotions. Van Slyke, with the most demanding role in the show, meets each of Sobol’s challenges head on, keeping above water until he finally drowns with the bone-chilling wail, “Let’s face the catastrophe of our existence without trying to give it meaning!”

Giving immediacy to a play about events that transpired 50 years ago is perhaps Sobol’s biggest challenge, and he does so in a simple and ingenious way. Underground is a memory play, with almost all of the action presented as the reenacted memories of an anonymous homeless man (Jim Mohr) who is a survivor of Vilna. He is admitted to a hospital as the play opens, and his nurse (Adrianne Cury) finds Dr. Weiner’s journal among his possessions, out of which spring most of the play’s scenes. In less skilled hands this convention might serve to place the events of 1943 safely in the past. But Sobol incorporates the modern-day character in the Vilna ghetto: in the second act he is pulled out of the sewers, another anonymous man left homeless by forces beyond his control. Thanks to Mohr’s first-rate performance, this compelling character blurs the distinction between past and present, elevating Sobol’s grand historical drama to a metaphor for the hatred and intolerance that continue to plague our world.