Despite the threatening weather, thunderstorms and tornado warnings, “the show must go on” and it did and my guest and I braved the elements and saw Elegy and were glad we did. In Elegy,written by Ron Hirsen and directed by Dennis Zacek now playing at the Richard Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 Lincoln Ave., it is clear that Kristallnacht, the night of shattered glass was also the night of shattered families.
Elegy weaves its story through time and location, from Kristtallnach in Berlin to contemporary New York, powerfully and effectively dramatizing the perpetual torment of Holocaust survivors, the anguish felt by their Jewish American children and the conflict that occurs with the clash between the two generations. The story which begins with Jerry finding a poem his father wrote to his mother, digs deep and reached me and presumably most of the audience at a gut level since the audience just sat for a while when the play ended.
Elegy is defined as a mournful poem; a lament for the dead, a funeral song and in this Elegy, the music of the cello (played by Bill Meyer), which was Hilde’s (Iris Lieberman) instrument, set just the right tone and tied the story together.
The acting was so good and each of the characters was very relatable. Jerry’s (Justin Leidner) struggle to really connect with his father, Helmut (David Wohl) felt so familiar to me. Having seen variations on this theme played out in families I am part of and familiesI know, what was happening on stage rang true.
Speaking with Bernard Beck (“Papa”) after the performance, I asked if any cast members had a connection to Kristtallnach or the Holocaust. He said the Justin Leidner’s grandparents had escaped early on. However, the cast found their own personal inner connections to Holocaust and this was transmitted to the audience.
But, I believe, it is the playwright’s connection to the Holocaust that results in a play so moving and real. See what Ron Hirsen had to say at a recent talk at the Illinois Holocaust Museum:
“As a child I was very aware of the Holocaust, of Hitler and the Nazis, of the camps, and of my father’s dramatic escape from Germany. I don’t recall hearing about these things for the first time; they have always just been a part of my consciousness. Typical of many survivors of the Nazis, my father spoke very little about his experiences as a Jew living in Nazi Germany through the 1930’s, but he clearly had deep feelings about Hitler, Germany, and the Nazis. And I, of course, developed my own point of view toward Hitler and the war and my father’s history. As a teenager I began to understand that my feelings were those of guilt. Here I was, a happy American kid, enjoying a warm and comfortable family life, and had it not been for Hitler, had it not been for Kristallnacht and the emigrations from Germany that followed, my father would not have left Germany; he would not have come to the United States, he would not have met my mother; and I would never have been born. I owe my existence, my life, which I treasure and enjoy, to Hitler.
I’m a playwright, so naturally, my feelings inspired me to write a play, Elegy. I never considered that my life or even my father’s might be sufficiently interesting or stageworthy, so I imagined another family, whose story is more intense and dramatic than my own. I envisioned a couple of German Jews who survived the Holocaust; I imagined their son, born after the atrocities and the war had ended; and placed them in the cauldron of their middle-class Jewish-American home, where the intensity of their internal lives bubbles up and spills out into the action of the play. My intent was to convey a sense of the tension between survivors and their children and the individual burdens that each of them carries.” Ron also mentioned to me that since the time when Elegy premiered at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia in 2002, it has been reworked. My guest and I found this play compelling, and moving.
The full cast includes David Wohl, “Helmut;” Iris Lieberman, “Hilde,” Justin Leider, “Jerry” and Bernard Beck, “Papa.” The production team is Grant Sabin, scenic design; Claire Chrzan, lighting design; Delia Ridenour, costume design; Scott Miller, sound design and Tina M. Jach, stage manager. The set was very good. It was simple but allowed for a clear telling of the story.
As the play reveals the culture of Germany in the way this family enjoyed music, chess, literature and poetry, it still is incomprehensible how it all could have happened. The exhibition at the Field Museum presented by the United States Holocaust Museum attempts to shed light on this. See the exhibition review
This production is beautiful and a very appropriate recognition of the 75th anniversary of Kristtallnach and I strongly recommend seeing this. Go with a group or on your own, even if the weather is threatening.
A portion of the ticket revenue goes to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. A benefit performance will be held for the Holocaust Community Services Leadership Committee of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Richard Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens Biograph
2433 Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL
Call: 773.871.3000 or go to:Tickets
The performance schedule is Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 5 and 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. There is no performance Thursday, Nov. 28 and an added performance Sunday, Dec. 1 at 7:00 p.m. Ticket prices are $30 for previews, $48 for opening night and $42 for the regular run. Tickets are available at victorygardens.org, elegyproject.org or 773.871.3000.
Photos:Anthony La Penna