Only scholarly Abram (Sasha Olinick) avoids the tumult to come: He’s sent by his family to New York, and remains a presence through his optimistic letters. (In “Our Class” terms, the only escape from misery is early emigration.) For the nine who remain, the stories of savagery and persecution, of inflicting pain and succumbing to it, are recounted with remarkable restraint, as if each of them is observing his or her own thoughts and reflexes as they are happening. The explosive outcomes of hatreds seeming to emerge from nowhere, culminating in a heartbreakingly precise narration by Dora (Laura C. Harris) as she’s herded into the barn with hundreds of other Jews, are not easy to sit through.
Some reductive characterizing is perhaps inevitable, even at this evening’s luxurious length: On the angelic end of the spectrum is the harbinger-victim Jakub Katz (Ashley Ivey), beaten to death by his former classmates with rotting fence posts; at the other extreme is the sinister Zygmunt (Mark Krawczyk), a protean thug who changes stripes with each shift in the prewar, wartime and postwar power structures, from nationalism to Communism to Naziism and back again.
More intriguing are the figures caught in the middle, such as the dim Wladek (Joshua Morgan), a Pole with no consistent agenda, other than survival; Rachelka (Dana Levanovsky), a Jew who melts by luck and adaptive instinct into a Christian household; and Zocha (Heather Haney), a Christian whose love for a rakish Jewish classmate (Tim Getman) compels her to an act of courage for which she ultimately feels no pride. The cast is rounded out by Alexander Strain, as a bigoted hypocrite who finds haven as a priest, and Harlan Work, playing a Polish schoolboy who graduates to the ghastly career of henchman.
As “Our Class” is the purest kind of ensemble piece, singling out a performance or two feels like a violation. (I remain convinced that in ordinary accents, the performances would be even more potent.) The work here of lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner is worth special mention, however, as are contributions by consulting musicologist Bret Werb and composer Eric Shimelonis. Even after civility and humanity disappear, music, and the bracing voices of “Our Class,” rise up as one to reaffirm that 10 tormented souls sprang from the same soil.
By Tadeusz Slobodzianek, English version by Ryan Craig. Directed by Derek Goldman. Set, Misha Kachman; lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner; costumes, Ivania Stack; sound, James Bigbee Garver; choreography, Emma Crane Jaster; fight choreography, Joe Isenberg; dramaturgy, Stephen Spotswood. About three hours. Through Nov. 4 at the DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit www.theaterj.org or call 800-494-TIXS.