German philosopher Theodor Adorno's assertion that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" hangs over Ron Hirsen's earnest 2002 one-act "Elegy," now in its Chicago premiere in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. The play, by the Elegy Project, is under Dennis Zacek's direction.
The barbarism of the Final Solution, presaged by the widespread attacks against Jewish citizens and property in Germany on Nov. 9-10, 1938, has destroyed the impulse for poetry in Helmut (David Wohl), who spent his days prior to the war in the cafe owned by his pastry chef father (Bernard Beck), writing verses inspired by nature and wooing a young cellist, Hilde (Iris Lieberman).
Though separated, the two reunite and wed in New York after the war. But the memories that Helmut suppresses seem to haunt the dreams of their son, Jerry (Justin Leider), named in memory of the grandfather who died in Auschwitz. When he finds a sole scrap of his father's poetry that his mother has preserved, he goes on a crusade to help his father — who has presumably tried to keep his own dad's memory alive by becoming a pastry chef himself — rediscover his artistic voice.
It's an affecting premise, to be sure. But both Hirsen's script and Zacek's staging suffer from a halting quality. The chronology jumps back and forth in time, revealing new details about Helmut's survival that should enlarge our understanding of his psychic paralysis. Yet the emotional arcs for the characters feel too cautious and stilted. (In a cunning choice, the accents that Helmut and Hilde have in post-war New York disappear in the Berlin scenes — the implication being that they are not "other" in their native country until the Nazis decree that families like Helmut's, with a history of seven generations in Berlin, are not "real" Germans.)
Leider hasn't yet found the spine for his character. Though Jerry is presented as a young man on the cusp of some fairly troubling emotional disturbances (no doubt exacerbated by being "the miracle" who is supposed to supplant the horrors suffered by his parents with new hope), he comes across as a surly post-adolescent rather than a seeker after his own heritage. Wohl, a Broadway and Hollywood veteran, also seems ill at ease moving back and forth from the dualities of the restless son/emotionally shuttered father his role demands across the years of the story.
Though Lieberman's performance as Hilde is the most nuanced and relatable, the mother's backstory gets short shrift here. She is a believable muse and a go-between for her battling menfolk, but her own family losses in the Holocaust are mentioned almost as asides.
But despite these drawbacks in narrative and performances, there is a palpable sense of anguish and urgency threaded through Hirsen's story. To keep family secrets from one's children after the destruction of so many families is a double tragedy, and one that must finally be reckoned with by Helmut and Jerry. As an honest attempt at portraying the damage wrought across generations by the Nazi genocide, as well as the struggle to find beauty and hope again, "Elegy" is sure to start some rich and revealing conversations.
When: Through Dec. 1
Where: Richard Christiansen Theater at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 70 minutes
Tickets: $42 at 773-871-3000 or victorygardens.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun