“The Book of Joseph,” playing at Everyman Theatre, tells the touching story of Richard Hollander, and his family’s journey through World War II. The piece, written by Karen Harman and directed by Noah Himmelstein, is a testament to why stories such as Hollander’s need to be shared. His family – Polish Jews living in Krakow at the start of World War II – were all thought to be lost during the Holocaust. The story of this family’s experience is told through one-sided letters that Hollander found in his parent’s effects after they died. Throughout the show, you notice that many pieces of the story aren’t entirely clear. Only the letters that were sent from Poland to Joseph Hollander (Richard’s father) in the United States remain. The others were lost in the destruction of Poland during the war. It’s a stark reminder that not only are the Nazis responsible for the death and destruction of thousands, but they are also responsible for erasing their stories. The life’s work of an entire generation of people was wiped out by one evil man and his army. It’s a heartbreaking reminder of how truly devastating this period of history was.
When talented people come together to create productions such as “The Book of Joseph,” you can almost feel just how meaningful it is to the national narrative.
“The Book of Joseph” shines a light on this loss by showing that it is imperative these stories be told to younger generations, so the thousands that lived through the destruction and those that perished won’t ever be forgotten. The tale itself, while completely true is almost impossible to believe. The letters used as a basis for the work make up the most complete set of dispatches from that time and place found by historians to date. Using the letters and through flashbacks, the Hollander family shares everyday stories of their lives with Joseph, who managed to get to America before the war broke out. When I spoke to Bruce Nelson about the play, he summed the family up perfectly – “this is a family that was fighting to live, rather than to not die.”
The actors playing the Hollanders in Poland brought these men and women to life subtly and beautifully. The audience could feel a shared history between the actors. Helen Hedman as Joseph’s mother was especially affecting. As the war dragged on, her regret at not leaving for America with her son grew stronger and stronger. Whether it is a slight crack in her voice during a monologue or tears when she speaks of how much she loves and misses her son, Hedman brings this regret to life realistically, depicting a hopeful, yet resigned woman.
While most of the Hollander family was living through devastation in Poland, Joseph also had issues seeking refuge in America. Yet throughout the ordeal he wrote and continued to support his family back home. The heart and perseverance Danny Gavigan instills in this character is stunning to watch. The strength that Joseph had must have been immense, and Gavigan never lets the audience forget it. Beginning with impassioned speeches about his home and family, through the moment he’s able to find happiness in a new country, he brings to life Joseph’s resolve and heart.
As the storyteller that shares his family’s tale, Bruce Nelson plays the part of Richard Hollander. As Richard, Nelson must sum up his family’s entire history – a history he’s immensely proud of, yet one that’s also filled with deep regret on his part. Nelson’s portrayal shows a man that senses the story of his life is important and should be shared, but also a man that doesn’t want to stare too hard at the details. Nelson masterfully allows the audience to see that Richard’s excitement in telling the story – as long as it remains on his terms. With the help of his son, played by Elliot Kashner, who lovingly helps him to see the bigger picture, Nelson as Richard is able to follow the clues to put the pieces of the larger puzzle together. Nelson and Kashner have effortless chemistry, and it’s easy to see them as father and son. Their relationship grounds the play, and the audience is given a clear idea as to why this story is so important to these men.
Added to the cast’s masterful work, the creatives worked hard to develop a set where flashbacks can occur quite easily. With the use of a turnstile and moving walls, the Hollander family living in Poland easily make their presence known throughout Richard’s presentation. The movement helped the show to progress gracefully. The use of beautiful period clothing (costumes by David Burdick), that seemed to become less beautiful and more useful as the war dragged on, allows the audience to settle in 1940s Poland. The use of the Star of David armbands as part of the costuming is also a glaring reminder, that aside from their obvious resilience, the lives they were living were full of hardships.
Beautiful stories such as these are not only important, but necessary. When talented people come together to create productions such as “The Book of Joseph,” you can almost feel just how meaningful it is to the national narrative. And though we’ve gotten better over the last 70 years, in the words of Bari Hochwald at the Cast Conversation last evening “we still suck at living together in the world.” But with any luck, the Hollander’s story and those that are determined to tell it will remind us that with dedication and perseverance, in the face of tragedy, it is still possible to be hopeful and to live a life full of the ones you hold dearest.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
Advisory: Discussions on World War II and the Holocaust, as well as mild adult language
“The Book of Joseph” runs through June 10, 2018, at Everyman Theatre – 315 West Fayette Street, Baltimore MD, 21201. For tickets, call (410)752-2208 or purchase online.