“Our Class,” an obsessively detailed account of 10 intertwined Polish lives, from 1926 to 2003, presents audiences with a wrenching course of human events and an atrocity whose barbarity is profoundly impenetrable. You’re compelled by playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek to wonder why followers of one faith would turn with primal bloodthirstiness on those of another. And not faceless practitioners of that other religion, but the children who sat beside them in elementary school.
Theater J plunges us into the stories of these 10 fictional characters in a three-hour production that is by turns fascinating, exasperating, exhausting, startling and, at all times, unsparing. One of the most astonishing facets of Slobodzianek’s 2007 play, translated by dramatist Ryan Craig, is its relentless cataloguing of doom, of the sorry arcs of virtually all of the lives it chronicles. “Cursed” is a word that comes to mind, though it’s the singularly hideous curse that half of the former schoolmates pronounce on the others that gives “Our Class” its shape as a shaming national tragedy.
(C. Stanley Photography) - Sasha Olinick, Ashley Ivey, Laura C. Harris and Harlan Work in Theater J's \"Our Class.\"
Five of Slobodzianek’s characters are Catholic and five are Jewish. Fusing devices reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and, in a different way, Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” the playwright withdraws from the dramatic action each of the former classmates at the point of their violent or natural deaths, but leaves them onstage, as barefoot ghosts who commingle in the spectral world with all the gentleness and grace that eluded their coexistence in ours.
It’s an important play, exhibiting the urgent assets of drama that force its way into the conscience — and some of the deficits, too. Slobodzianek’s desire for personal testimony with all the documentary embroidery of an encyclopedia entry makes “Our Class” a sometimes-fatiguing exercise. The play is divided into 14 “lessons,” and by the time “Lesson XI” or “XII” flashes on the blackboard of designer Misha Kachman’s elegantly utilitarian schoolroom set, you are transported at moments back to the days of 11th-grade World History clock-watching.
The decision, too, by director Derek Goldman to require all 10 cast members to speak with Polish accents is a confounding misstep. If actors were skilled dialecticians (or relatives of Meryl Streep), the artifice might be excusable. (Although the logic of characters speaking to one another in their native tongue with a foreign accent has always escaped me.) Here, the attempt to “sound” Polish has an effect opposite to what is intended: It’s corrosive to authenticity.
It reflects, though, an earnest desire by Goldman and his admirable actors — whose verve for telling this story is one of its attractive attributes — to try to do justice to a play that shifts so disturbingly our definition of community. And for those prepared to listen closely, “Our Class” will prove meaningful. The work is based on “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland,” a 2001 book by Jan Gross, a Polish American history professor at Princeton. He asserted that 1,600 Jews of Jedwabne were not burned to death in a barn in 1941 by the Nazis as previously believed, but by their fellow Poles.