Often novels don’t translate well to the stage or screen, but Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed 2002 debut, Everything is Illuminated, is a notable exception.
In 2005, the book became a well-reviewed, small-scale movie by Liev Schreiber starring Elijah Wood, and now the Aurora Theatre Company is presenting a simply wonderful theatrical adaptation by British writer Simon Block. The excellent direction by Tom Ross and sensitive, skilled acting by the talented cast adds to the absolute pleasure of this production.
The central plot involves a young Jewish-American writer, with the convenient name of Jonathan Safran Foer (played by an outstanding Jeremy Kahn, Dry Powder, Wittenberg), who goes on a ‘roots’ trip to Ukraine. He is searching for his grandfather’s shtetl of Trachimbrod and to find Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis, according to family history.
Jonathan is guided on his journey by two kooky Ukrainians: the driver, a bad-tempered, impenetrable grandfather who claims to be blind (superb Julian Lopez-Morillas, The Heir Apparent, The Homecoming), and his grandson, translator Alex (exceptional Adam Burch), whose fractured English is always hilarious. Jonathan has only an aged picture of Augustine with Jonathan’s grandfather as an aid. No current maps show the town.
As the three drive a cleverly invisible car aimlessly through the countryside, accompanied by the barking but invisible Seeing Eye dog Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (yes, Jr. Jr.), they meet strangers who immediately become unfriendly when the name of the shtetl is mentioned, all of whom are well-played by versatile Marissa Keltie. She also skillfully plays other roles. As the journey progresses, the grandfather resists finding Trachimbrod and grows more and more restive.
Finally, at the climax of the first act, the trio meets a mysterious old woman (acted with subtlety and grace by Lura Dolas (Abigail’s Party, The Glass Menagerie, The Persians), who may or may not be Augustine. In Act II she causes the revelation of long-buried dark secrets that deeply affect all three journeyers. Lopez-Morillas performs a poignant, masterful soliloquy that left me tearful.
Interspersed with Jonathan’s search for Augustine and Trachimbrod is a subplot about the lives of Jonathan’s remote ancestor, Brod, reputedly Jonathan’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother. As an infant, she was found in the river and adopted. The novel’s style and structure were made much more creative by having multiple stories, but the brief glimpse into the history of Trachimbrod seems like an unnecessary afterthought in the stage version.
I want to commend Ross’s direction of Everything is Illuminated. This was a difficult play to stage at the Aurora’s small, three-sided theater because of the multiple characters, the crazy dog, the car trip and multiple sets — all imbued with a mix of magic and realism. As Ross said, “The play invites an innovative theatricality that is different from what Aurora has done before.” Kate Boyd (sets), Callie Floor (costumes), Kurt Landisman (lighting) and Matt Stines (sound) all worked wonders.
This production has very amusing sections, particularly when Alex speaks his butchered version of English. Yet, it is also an emotional commemoration of the millions who died at the hands of the Nazis in the Second World War. And, though it is less commonly portrayed, Everything is Illuminated also illustrates how the wounds of war are carried down through the generations to those who are innocent and unknowing.
Everything is Illuminated is playing the Aurora Theatre and was extended on Nov. 19 to run through Dec. 16. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit the Aurora Theatre’s website.