By Ira Fuchs
The Theatre at St. Clements
423 West 46th St., NYC
Through March 31
By GWEN OREL
At the beginning of “Vilna,” a luminous new play by Ira Fuchs, the ghost of Motke (Broadway actor Mark Jacoby, “Ragtime;” “Show Boat”) tells us:
“There were sixty thousand Jews in Vilna when I was born, and almost eighty thousand twenty years later. Nearly half the people in Vilna were Jews. For three centuries Vilna was the Jewish cultural center of Eastern Europe. There were theaters, recital halls, libraries, newspapers, book publishers, orchestras, sports teams, scientists and social activists.”
Today, Vilna’s Jewish population is gone. On a Wikipedia page for Vilnius (the Lithuanian name), the population percentage of Jews in 2011 was listed as NA in one place and .15 percent in another. The city had always had a population mixed of Russians, Poles and Jews.
Fuchs’ new play features Brian Cade, with fight direction by Montclair’s Rick Sordelet. Director Joe Discher lives in Bloomfield.
After the ghost of Motke’s introduction, the cast begin to sing the beautiful song “Vilne, Vilne” by A. L. Wolfson (1867-1946) in the early 1930s, to music by Alexander Olshanetsky, and the sense of longing and loss and yet warmth is complete. The song was often sung during the Nazi occupation of the city, which began in June 1941.
Today, Vilna is known by its Lithuanian name “Vilnius,” but to Jews it will always be Vilna.
Fuchs’ play was inspired by the true story of an escape tunnel dug in the forest of Ponar, where Jews had been forced to dig mass graves for their fellows who were being shot there. News reports estimate about 100,000 people were slaughtered in Ponar. The tunnel was discovered in 2016.
But Fuchs’ play is not only about that. In fact that escape is a small part of Fuchs’ luminous play. Its structure is unusual these days: it’s structured like a movie, with scene following scene, rather than the usual contemporary play structure which tends to be more narrow-focused. It is sprawling, but also gripping, as scene follows scene and leads to the tunnel escape. Some might find that a fault, but to those interested in the history it merely adds to the fascination.
Primarily, the play is the story of Motke Seidel (Sean Hudick), who is at first the relatively affluent son of a glover, his friendship with the orphan Yudi Farber (Seamus Mulcahy). We see both boys age from 11 to 29. And we can see for ourselves how forward-thinking Vilna is: his mother (Carey Van Driest) is a doctor. And that is not especially unusual.
Motke becomes a lawyer, then finds he cannot practice law, since he’s Jewish. His father Josef (Mark Jacoby) has never recovered his strength after being set upon by anti-Semites. His friend and then unofficial brother Yudi, who is half Jewish, runs the family business, and becomes an engineer, at one point even hired to draft slaughterhouses (when he realizes what they are, he first throws up and then builds in a design flaw). Eventually, Motke becomes part of the Judenrat. These councils were appointed by Nazis to make oppressed people pick their own for slaughter, threatening them that if the Jewish leaders didn’t choose a certain number, Nazis would slaughter everyone.
It was not uncommon for members of the Judenrat who survived to kill themselves after the war, unable to live with their guilt.
But Fuchs play even-handedly shows us both sides, and in doing so, poses a huge question. When is stalling for time being complicit? Should any kind of working with the enemy be seen as helping the enemy? It’s simply a fact that in Vilna, thanks to the work of the Judenrat and their insistence on cleanliness in the Jewish ghetto, there were no outbreaks of Cholera and Typhus. The show’s slogan on its web page is one spoken out loud by the tormented Judenrat leader Jacob Gens (Nathan Kaufman): “If God created monsters, he also created heroes.”
The Nazis were both terrifying. Montclair’s Cade as the Nazi Weiss mixed a veneer of politeness with sudden sharp brutishness. Paul Cooper (so good in “Buried Child” at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey) takes that idea and doubles it: His Nazi officer Paul Kittel plays clarinet, is soft-spoken, handsome, and ruthless. He never even raises his voice.
Many of the characters are based on real people. The show’s webpage offers a good deal of background and history.
Director Discher beautiful moves the cast around, and the music used throughout sets an evocative tone; kudos to sound designer Jane Shaw. There are also scenes set in a cabaret, highlighted by the singing of Sophia Blum.
My only criticism is a wish that the play’s final moments brought us back to Vilna.
“Because we are three generations removed from the Holocaust, the world’s collective memory of it is fading away. This emboldens people and institutions to promulgate Anti-Semitic lies and tropes and engage in violent hate crimes,” the playwright said in a release.
It’s a rare play that lives up to its own intentions as described in its publicity materials. “Vilna” truly does. This powerful play, which opens with a ghost, is a haunting elegy for the “Jerusalem of the North.”