There’s no shortage of questions when the lights come up at the end of Theater J’s production of Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s Our Class. How could these people, friends since childhood, be so cruel to one another? How could we possibly retain the capacity to forgive despite that cruelty? Where did I put my tissues, and when did it get so blurry in here?
Once you’ve dried your eyes and wandered out into the autumn air, another question arises: How on earth did they pull that off? Our Class is a three-hour epic that spans 80 years in the lives of 10 individuals from the Polish town of Jedwabne—five Jewish, five Catholic—and the horrific events during World War II that both bind their fates and tear them apart.
There is no aging makeup, nor any costume changes, and the set—stark and minimal with black brick, a schoolroom chalkboard, and a couple of patches of cobblestone amid the floorboards—is unchanging. The play flagrantly breaks a standard dramatic rule, both showing and telling, often via direct address. None of this should work.
Yet director Derek Goldman and his ensemble cast fit into those 180 minutes 10 remarkably rich and detailed lifetimes. It’s up to viewers to fill in the moments when the practical restrictions of theater only allow for evocative sketches. But the production makes those imaginative leaps easy.
The innocence of the group as children, singing and dancing in class, gives way to young starry-eyed love, sometimes even crossing over the religious differences between them before they really know that those are boundaries not meant to be crossed. Then the fire and passion of young adulthood, the sour regret of middle age, and eventually the bent backs of old age. The exceptional cast needs only their voices and bodies to show the passage of time.
Things begin idyllically in that classroom, but the German and Soviet occupations remind everyone of their differences. Each regime appears to favor one group or another, when in reality they’re just crushing everything in their path.
Once some destructive impulses have been sparked, many in the group turn on one another, and the play turns to shockingly frank depictions of rape and murder, before getting to the historical massacre that forms the work’s devastating centerpiece: the entirety of the town’s Jewish population burned in a barn, not by the Nazis, but by the Poles themselves.
The second act deals with the aftermath of that event, before eventually speeding through much of the latter half of the century. Repeated motifs, like the letters from Abram (Sasha Olinick)—the one classmate to leave Poland for America before the war—to the rest of the group, or the way the characters, as they die, carefully remove their shoes and socks, and take a seat at the back of the stage for the rest of the play, help keep the Our Class from feeling like it’s wandering.
Indeed, the show maintains a remarkably breathless focus and intensity from start to finish. Death comes at different stages of life for each of these characters, yet it always seems either too soon, or after the last of their years have been wasted. Słobodzianek’s work humanizes even the worst members of this group, and the most noble get their petty moments, too. We are all, to varying degrees, a mess. That’s one possible answer to the most important question Our Class could pose, the one its characters too often fail to consider: What is it that unites us rather than divides us?