Chicago Theatre Review
Every Day Lasts a Year
The Book of Joseph – Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
With increasing frequency, our wonderful Tony Award-winning regional theatre, the jewel of Chicago’s Navy Pier, ventures away from its namesake playwright and presents a musical or a play not written by the Bard. In this moving new drama, commissioned by Creative Producer Rick Boynton, local audiences are being treated a stirring, original world premiere. And, despite the fact that playwright Karen Hartman adapted her brilliant play from a book entitled Every Day Lasts a Year, a true collection of letters written from Poland during World War II, the story resounds today with the current state of our own country.
Following the tragic accident that took the life of his parents, a present-day middle-aged American named Richard Hollander accidentally discovers a suitcase, while cleaning out in the attic. It’s filled with letters written in Polish and German by his father, Joseph, and other members of the extended family he never knew. Through these letters Richard learns about his father, one of many Jews who, when fleeing for their lives from Krakow, Poland, found themselves fighting the American government in order to remain safely in this country. He also learns that Joseph had tried desperately to help his mother, sisters and their families to escape the Nazis before it was too late, but he was unsuccessful in convincing them of the seriousness of the oncoming storm.
However, while Joseph was unable to save his own family, he was successful in protecting the lives of other Jewish people during the Holocaust, including a young boy named Arnold Spitzman. These letters, and a personal meeting with the adult Arnold, put a human face on that dark period of history, which must never be forgotten; they shed light on just one of many heroes from that terribly tragic era. For Richard Hollander, his father, Joseph, rose to personal prominence and immortality for all he did to help others.
Francis Guinan, one of the mega-talented original founders and a frequent performer at Steppenwolf Theatre, is wondrous as Richard Hollander. With Guinan’s natural affability and his comfort speaking from his heart directly to an audience, this character’s passion and story are palpable. The honesty and clarity with which this actor portrays Richard, a real-life man, is the heart of this production.
But if Guinan is the heart of Ms. Hartman’s play, Sean Fortunato is the soul. This gifted actor portrays Joseph Hollander, a man who desperately tries everything in his power to rescue his mother and immediate family, only to have his efforts be unsuccessful because his kin have buried their heads in the sand. The anguish, the anger and the persistence with which Joseph continues trying to help others, as well as himself, is inspiring. This is what a real-life hero looks like. And, once again, Mr. Fortunato demonstrates why he’s considered one of Chicago’s finest actors.
The brains of this play are represented by Adam Wesley Brown’s Craig Hollander. As Richard’s intellectual son, a young man who sees things realistically and in black and white, Craig’s working on his own research project, about the slave trade in America. He sees parallels between the two projects, and admonishes his father for dragging his feet in getting the translation published, as well as for romanticizing the more than 200 letters he discovered. Brown is excellent as the cerebral son who thinks he understands the whole story, but comes to discover and understand a great deal more by the end of the play.
The rest of this talented ensemble cast, many playing several different roles, is extraordinary and bring this story to life with pathos and promise. Glynis Bell is sweetly touching, yet stubbornly bullheaded, as Berta Hollander, Joseph’s mother. Amy J. Carle, Gail Shapiro and Patricia Lavery portray Joseph’s adult sisters, each with a very different personality, but every one cut from the same cloth as their mother. Mikey Gray and Brenann Stacker play Joseph’s nieces, both young girls filled with hope and optimism, despite the fact that the world is collapsing around them. Ms. Stacker also doubles as an affecting, pitiable young Arnold Spitzman. The multitalented, and greatly respected Ron E. Rains assumes the most variety of roles. He’s first seen as Joseph’s proud brother-in-law, then as a gruff officer of the Court at Ellis Island, as Stanley Diana and finally, in a touching scene, as an older adult Arnold Spitzman.
Directed by Barbara Gaines, this is definitely a labor of love. She skillfully guides her cast to find the wisdom, poignance and, surprisingly, the humor in this beautiful, historical drama. A stark scenic design by Scott Davis is enhanced by Philip Rosenberg’s dramatic lighting and exquisite projections by Mike Tutaj. Sound design, co-created by Miles Polaski and Mikhail Fiksel, help provide mood and atmosphere, and costumes and wigs by Rachel Healy and Richard Jarvie help complete the authentic look of this historic piece.
This radiant, very moving piece of theatre breathes passionate life into another true, but untold episode of the Holocaust. Much like the story of Anne Frank, this play has its genesis in the real letters and journals collected and saved by Joseph Hollander, an unsung hero of this dark period in history. Based upon the book his son Richard assembled (and is for sale in the lobby) from these found letters, audiences will relive the horror, the determination and the love that this family held for each other. And, as audiences listen to the words and deeds of this story, they may find themselves shuddering at how the observations and threats from this dark period in history resonate today.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 4-March 5 by Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, in their Upstairs Theater.
Tickets are available in person at the Chicago Shakespeare box office, by calling them at 312-595-5600 or by going to www.chicagoshakes.com.
Additional information about this and other area theatres can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.