Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2002 novel “Everything Is Illuminated” is the story of a young man (also named Jonathan Safran Foer) who travels to the rural Ukrainian town of Trachimbrod in search of Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis.
It’s also a chronicle of Alex, a Ukrainian narrator with a hilariously loose grasp of English who is hired to shuttle Jonathan around with his quasi-blind grandfather and overly amorous dog. And it’s a magic realism fable of life in Trachimbrod between 1791 and 1943.
It’s a glistening, complicated book and concerned with, among other things, the legacy of the Holocaust, the nature of love and loss, and the way we tell stories.
It’s not, at first glance, easy to bring to the stage. (The show is now making its East Coast debut at Theater J.) The work unfolds as a series of letters between Alex and Foer, who’s also sending chapters of his novel. The narrative zigs and zags, propelled by glorious leaps of language and feats of imagination and genealogy.
In fact, when playwright Simon Block was approached to translate Foer’s text to the stage, he declined. He loved the book and enjoyed the loose, impressionistic 2005 film version. But he just didn’t think it could work in a theater.
“Initially I thought, ‘You can’t do it,’ ” Block said by phone from London. “It’s so complicatedly put together. It’s not a book that lends itself to being adapted.”
But people kept pressing, so Block gave the text another look, with an eye toward structure. In time, he said, he began to see how the plot could be streamlined and focused without losing its essence.
“I wanted people to sit back and go along and not worry they’re not keeping up,” Block said. “I don’t want people sitting there with copies [of the book] rifling back 20 or 30 pages because they don’t know what’s happening.”
The show debuted in London in 2006 and had its U.S. premiere in Chicago in 2013. The play captures Foer’s pilgrimage to Ukraine; in the stage adaptation, Alex’s hilariously literal English letters are transformed into conversation between him and Foer. Also along for the ride: Alex’s grandfather. The show’s second half, set in Trachimbrod, becomes a meditation on wartime shame, guilt and morality.
Block said he hopes his stripped-down show will satisfy the book’s fans while engaging newbies. “I think the people who really liked the book feel that this was a good representation,” he said. “And for the people who wanted to like the book but gave up halfway through, this was a clearer version.”
Aaron Posner, who is directing the show at Theater J, said he was drawn to the project because of how much he enjoyed Foer’s work.
“What’s so great and intriguing about the book is that it goes so many places and does so many things,” Posner said. “It’s really poetic and moving.”
It’s also, he conceded, structurally complicated, with lots of flashbacks and jumps in time. “If you try to reproduce the book onstage you fail,” he said. He describes the relationship between Foer’s book and the play as something like “cousins.”
But at their core, Posner said, both versions are about breaking cycles. “It’s deep in the story,” he said. And although there’s a lot of humor in the show, Posner said he wanted to make sure his cast was grounded in the history. After the last rehearsal, on Christmas Eve, Posner and his team went to the Holocaust Museum. It was a meaningful way, he said, to return to the book’s core themes.
“It was a good experience for us all,” he said. “A better understanding of where we’re going.”
Theater J, in the Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. 202-777-3210. theaterj.org.
Dates: Through Feb. 4.