For those who survived the Holocaust, and those who survive the survivors, the admonition “never again” isn’t just a challenge to anyone prone to forget or minimize what happened under the Third Reich.
The words also carry a certain responsibility. To prevent a repeat of the past, you have to keep asking how things happened and why.
“The Book of Joseph,” an absorbing, uneven play by Karen Hartman now at Everyman Theatre, looks into the consequences of avoiding such questions, of staying at arm’s length from the issues and the pain — or from a briefcase, an object at the heart of this work.
Packed with letters sent from Nazi-occupied Poland, that briefcase was discovered by Baltimorean Richard Hollander after the death of his parents in a car accident in 1986. He waited almost 15 years to investigate the contents.
When Hollander finally had the documents translated from Polish and German, he learned much about his father, Joseph Hollander, who received letters from the family he left behind after emigrating to the United States in 1939.
Those letters, which stopped in 1943, and other documents in the briefcase were turned into a book, “Every Day Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family’s Correspondence From Poland,” co-written by Richard Hollander and published in 2007.
Inspired by that nonfiction book, Hartman’s play attempts to shed light as much on the letter-writers and the recipient of the mail as on the man who left that briefcase undisturbed for so long.
One story thread in the play concerns Joseph’s journey to this country and what happened when he faced immigration authorities on Ellis Island. The fate of Joseph’s relatives, who appear to have brushed aside his warnings about the German occupation, is another thread. A third involves Richard’s experiences with loss and discovery, and the challenges posed by his ever-questioning son, Craig.
The resulting quilt doesn’t always feel smooth and sturdy, but there certainly is the stuff of meaty drama in it.
The play opens as a book talk given by Richard (Bruce Randolph Nelson), promoting “Every Day Lasts a Year.” And I do mean promoting — the frequent shilling in the play for Hollander’s book, available for purchase in Everyman’s lobby, gets awfully tiresome and, in such a context, feels downright unseemly.
Even without that merchandising element, the lecture set-up is a bit creaky, especially when Richard gets interrupted by Craig (Elliott Kashner), but it does help open a portal into several generations of the family.
Joseph’s story, which has more documentation than that of the relatives who stayed in Poland, takes many a fascinating turn. And those turns help the play establish a possible foundation for why Richard, Joseph’s American-born son, thinks and acts the way he does, and how it affects the relationship between Richard and his son.
Issues of identity, immigration and politics animate the drama, taking on a very contemporary resonance at times. All of that is lightened by humor along the way, though occasionally triggered at awkward moments, as if out of concern that the audience might get too uncomfortable with the subject matter.
That’s not as problematic as the moments that come off as sentimental or stagey (or both), nowhere more so than when ghosts of the past pop up in Act 2 to count off the years Richard waited to open the briefcase. When they appear again near the end of the piece on a revolving stage, the effect is even more hokey.
Speaking of hokey, an audio-visual burst that occurs at a mention of the car accident is wince-inducing. Such a blatant touch is all the more surprising in a production otherwise subtly and stylishly directed by Noah Himmelstein.
As Richard, Nelson’s gestures and speech inflections make it seem at first as if he’s auditioning for the role of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” (there’s even a droll reference to that musical in the script). It’s all a little much. But there’s a major contrast in Act 2, when the action moves to Richard’s home and Craig turns into a relentless interrogator of his father.
Sitting on the floor, his face seemingly pained by the weight of secrets and regrets, Nelson reveals a whole new layer to Richard — and offers what is surely some of his most affecting and sensitive acting at Everyman. He goes on to finish the play in equally telling form.
Kashner is a natural as Craig. Danny Gavigan does assured, eloquent work as Joseph. Helen Hedman gives a compelling portrayal of the Hollander family matriarch. Wil Love shines in four roles, each given a distinct touch.
The rest of the ensemble multitasks effectively as well: Megan Anderson (especially charming as Joseph’s American wife), Bari Hochwald, Beth Hylton and Hannah Kelly.
Daniel Ettinger’s atmospheric set, lit with great nuance by Cory Pattak, is complemented by David Burdick’s expertly detailed costumes.
“Sometimes I feel like somebody asked me to sing after my tongue was removed,” says one of Richard’s aunts as the situation worsens in Poland. “The Book of Joseph” gives her, and everyone else caught up in this family saga, a strong voice, a chance to be heard, understood and remembered.