“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.
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.
The book’s publication convulsed Poland and inflamed debate over his claims and the apparently greater degree to which Poles were complicit in Jewish suffering during World II. Adam Michnik, erstwhile Polish dissident and adviser to Lech Walesa, wrote in the New York Times in 2001 that the controversy made it seem “as if the whole society was suddenly forced to carry the weight of this terrible 60-year-old crime, as if all Poles were made to admit their guilt collectively and ask for forgiveness.”
“Our Class” portrays Polish guilt as a festering boil in desperate need of lancing. If that’s an unpleasant image, well, Slobodzianek has no desire to shield us from events that curdle the blood. Starting in their tender years as innocents singing hymns and proclaiming for an unseen teacher their when-I-grow-up dreams, the characters embark on 10 interwoven, lifelong self-narrations. Soon enough the fissures in their childhood solidarity — encouraged by the upheaval of successive Soviet and Nazi invasions — begin to show, and they find themselves in an ever-more hostile, divided village of “Poles” and “Jews.”
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.