In it, Richard (played by Bruce Randolph Nelson) tells the story of the relatives he never knew. Time shifts from present to past and from Krakow, Poland, where the family is eventually forced into the Krakow ghetto, to New York, where Joseph eventually lands, and to present-day Maryland, where Richard is giving a book talk to the audience.
Joseph’s letters to his mother, sisters and niece were lost with the family. But the ones he received make up a good percentage of the play’s dialogue.
“I set some ground rules that the people who have passed away would only show up in their own words,” says playwright Karen Hartman. “When you have a letter, the play never adds to it. When there are gaps, the gaps are left so you really feel that sense of fragmentation.”
In the letters, the Hollanders write about their hopes and plans for the future — and they also complain about food shortages, the stress of being moved into ever-smaller and more crowded apartments (and eventually to the Krakow ghetto) and the weather, which always seems to be too hot or too cold.
“We have to treat them as messy, as flawed, just to make them vivid and real and authentic,” director Noah Himmelstein says. “In making them complicated, messy people who are just trying to get to the next day, we are honoring them, rather than saying they’re gold statues.”
Unlike his family, who thought he was being alarmist, Joseph made it to New York, following a journey through Europe. He didn’t have the proper visa to stay legally, but getting that visa would have been next to impossible: The U.S. had strict rules about how many European Jews should be allowed into the country.
“At that time, the sense that there were about to become millions of Jewish refugees was not a happy or comfortable thought to the United States government,” Hartman says.
While Joseph spends much of his time in New York trying to get visas for his family to leave Poland and go anywhere else, he lives with the constant threat of deportation. After all, Joseph is undocumented, doesn’t speak English and is a member of a group that many, if not most, people thought wouldn’t assimilate well into American society. “The Book of Joseph” is a story playing out not only on Everyman’s stage, but daily on the nightly news and front pages across the country as America again decides which immigrant groups get to cross the border.
“What separates the refugees we ‘fear’ and the refugees we ‘want’ is a line that always keeps changing,” Hartman says.
And since she began work on the play in 2012, she’s seen that change in the world at large.
“These immigrations have cycled back in a way that is unwelcome to me,” she says. “In 2012 [the play] had to fight for its timeliness. I think now it has to fight less.”
Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette St., Baltimore; through June 10, times vary, $43-$65.