A tricky maze of dividing right from wrong

THEATER REVIEW: "The Book Thief" by Steppenwolf for Young Adults ★★★

'The Book Thief'

Ilsa (Nicole Wiesner) gives a blank book to Liesel (Rae Gray) in "The Book Thief" from Steppenwolf for Young Adults. (October 22, 2012)

When death comes for me — and, as Markus Zusak's novel, "The Book Thief," makes very clear, death surely is coming for us all — I wouldn't mind if he were played by Francis Guinan.

Guinan, an ensemble member at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the busy star of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults dramatic adaptation of "The Book Thief," has a reflective, reluctant, gentle, quizzical quality in most everything he does — a certain reticence when it comes to sticking in the knife, as it were. Surely, he would ruminate as he carried you off. That might make the transition a little easier.

As anyone in Chicago reading "The Book Thief" well knows (and, since this 2006 novel is the latest One Book, One Chicago entry, there are a lot of young people in Chicago currently reading "The Book Thief"), death is the narrator of Zusak's story about a young German girl caught up in the myriad horrors of Nazi Germany. He is, Guinan tells us, "haunted by humans" even though facilitating their exit is his job.

Zusak's novel is an excellent piece of writing, not least because it is constantly preoccupied with the question of the culpability of ordinary people for whom speaking up would most certainly have meant serious trouble. That dilemma — when are circumstances so extreme that you must cry out, even if it comes at great personal cost? — was certainly pervasive during the Holocaust, when there were many layers of blame (and when you could argue that reduced culpability in such circumstances alleviated nothing). But many of us deal with it every day. Should you speak up at the office if you perceive a violation of ethics? Should you mind your own business? Should you fight openly or covertly? These are the questions that permeate Zusak's story, which contains so much for young people to ponder.

If you've not read the book (and you call yourself a Chicagoan?), its reluctant heroine, whose name is Liesel, is the Gentile child of communists who have been sent away by the Nazis, and thus her own family has been destroyed. But Liesel, now a foster child, luckily lands at the home of a German housepainter named Hans Hubermann and his wife Rosa (Amy J. Carle), who try their best not to attract attention even as they quietly hide away a young Jewish man (Max, played by Patrick Andrews) in their basement. The character of Hubermann, superbly played here by Mark Ulrich, is the most interesting in the book, for sure, as he is a man constantly churning around the relationship of responsibility to action. And events in this story turn on a cruel irony: the moment he does something small to help a stranger, it actually makes it less possible for him to do what matters more to the ones he's protecting. Such are the things you have to consider when deciding whether to speak up, especially if that means you must leave the game.

The adapter of the work, Heidi Stillman, does not find it easy to pack in all aspects of this complicated book, even though, at 2 hours, 15 minutes, this is one of the longer Young Adult shows Steppenwolf has produced. And I'd argue that Hallie Gordon's production is a tad under-produced by the standards of this program; there is a young-adult patina to the proceedings, even though the very best Young Adult shows at Steppenwolf have had no such glaze and still most assuredly have been for young adults. This one has some repetitive movement patterns and, well, not so great or potent of a design.

That said, the fundamentals of the acting and storytelling are sound indeed. The show surely lands with its audience. On Saturday afternoon, when I saw the show, there were many tears at the ennobling climax of the work. Guinan is just as rich as you would expect, and there is also an exceptionally unsentimental performance from Rae Gray (now a fine adult performer after a long history of kids' roles) as the titular book thief, so called because of her love of lifting volumes and then escaping into them. Andrews is also very moving throughout. In just the right, quiet way.

The novel does, I think, suggest more of a hostile Nazi environment on the street outside, more of the way tension co-exists with normalcy than the slightly softer dramatization manages. But one has to respect the clear intent here: to show, with feeling, that knowing what to do for the best is hard for everybody.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Nov. 11 (most non-school performances are on weekends)

Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Tickets: $20 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org

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