By Elizabeth Ann Foster
How many Lithuanians have you ever met in your life? In over 1/2 a century on earth I met one. My partner. Then another – his father.
Perhaps it’s because the small Baltic country we know as Lithuania was occupied and claimed alternatively by Russia, Lithuania, Poland, to Lithuania, back to Poland and then again to Russia, back to Poland then Germany. Independence was not until 1991. In 1910, 18-year-old males faced protracted Russian military conscription. My partner’s grandfather and brother walked to Germany, got on a ship to America and never saw their families again – or ever looked back, proudly served in the US army in World War I.
Several in the audience assisted by canes, walkers and aides donning kippahs are likely holocaust survivors themselves. Vilna is an emotionally draining depiction of atrocities for a human being to see, hear, and witness.
Playwright Ira Fuchs starts the action of his play during the tumultuous time of 1927 building up to the next world war. The stark wall backdrop projects the date of each event. Names are real, representing those lost in the ghetto or Ponar forest under WWII German rule.
The set is sparse. Carefully chosen objects depict the scenes. Each a simple rearrangement of tables and chairs. It works as did the Jewish population – with what they had.
The story is set around Vilna ghetto survivor Mordechai Zeidel (Sean Hudock) from ages 11 to 29. We witness his struggles to survive, organize and help fellow citizens through invasions and occupations of Russia, Poland, and Germany. The play begins with Mordechai’s ghost (Mark Jacoby) “My friends call me Motke. I was the last person alive who knew firsthand what happened in the forest of Ponar, just outside Vilna. You need to know.” We are taken back to events created by Fuchs occurring during one of the darkest and lowest points of the 20thcentury.
The Jewish population of over 80,000 at the time in Vilna was highly educated and successful. The city boasted theaters, hospitals, schools, synagogues, and libraries. Motke’s brother and engineer Udi (Seamus Mulcahy) is tasked with designing a mysterious construction project for the German firm IG Farben vaguely detailed in blueprints, “Is this a pen for animals? A slaughterhouse?”
Strict hygiene rules were self-imposed by the Judenrat which was organized to self-administer the ghetto to prevent outbreaks of diseases. Of the 30,000 Jews forced into the Vilna ghetto few died of starvation or disease. This back story is expertly woven into the dialogue and actions as Motke’s family become leaders in these efforts.
Through an analogy German officer Weiss (Brian Cade) casually explains controlling the population, “If you throw a frog into boiling water it jumps out. But if you place it into cool water and slowly bring it to a boil, the frog will not notice until it is too late.” Non-Jews were complicit in the efforts of the Einsatzgruppen. In one scene we learn mobs of Lithuanians set the Jewish hospital on fire with hundreds trapped inside.
It is rare to hear an audience gasp in New York City – especially in theatre. During a palpable, unexpected, and raw scene between German officers there was a collective gasp with one patron screaming out.
Filing out of the theater Fuchs said, “Please tell a friend, we can never forget.”
Recommended for 15 and older, violence, language and perverse sadism. Children under 4 not permitted.
Vilna – written by Ira Fuchs and directed by Joseph Discher.
WITH Mark Jacoby (the ghost of Motke Zeidel/Josef Zeidel), Sean Hudock (Motke Zeidel), Carey Van Driest (Doctor Naomi Zeidel), Patrick Toon (Victor Nowicki/ Commissar Alperovitch/ Salas Dessler), Seamus Mulcahy (Yudi Farber), Tom Morin (Pietr/Professor Kridl/Abba Kovner), Brian Cade (Jakowicki/Martin Weiss), James Michael Reilly (Professor Ehrenkreutz/Dirgela/HumbertAchamer-Ppifrader), Nathan Kaufman (Rabbi Halperin/Jacob Gens), Sophia Blum (Rosa Szabad/ChayeleRosenthal), Paul Cooper (Bruno Kittel).
Scenic design by Brittany Vasta, costume design by Devon Painter, lighting design by Harry Feiner, and sound design by Jane Shaw.
Theatre at St. Clement’s 423 West 46thStreet (between 9thand 10thAvenues) New York, NY 10003, through Sunday, October 28, 2018. Performances 7 p.m. and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. runs through April 14. Running time 2 hours 15 minutes with 15-minute intermission.