My mother didn’t want to go to college. After graduating high school, she didn’t attend, electing instead to run away to the mountains of Colorado to become a ski bum. Instead of the free skiing life she imagined, she spent a season cleaning toilets as a maid. Finally, she decided to honor her parents’ wishes and go to college. On her first day of St. Catherine’s, a sprawling and decidedly Catholic all-girls school, she wore fatigues from the army surplus store. Drawing a line down the floor of her dorm with her combat boot, she said to her new roommate (whom she later dubbed “Becky Home Ec-ky”) “this is your side, and this is mine.”
I have heard this story so many times throughout the years, more as mythology than recollection. Every rebellion I stage is due in part to my mother’s genes. Everything Is Illuminated understood this process, how our family stories stretch and shrink to accommodate corners of the everyday. Everything Is Illuminated was a story of stories. It’s part letters read aloud, part family mythology told in projector images, and part recollections of the main characters. The show celebrated the nature of our own mythology, and how it can shape us along the way.
The play began with Alex (Peter Sakowicz), a boyish Ukraine native, speaking directly to the audience in broken English with a sincerity that is both heartbreaking and hilarious. He was asked by his travel agent father to translate for Jonathon (Sean Lally), an American Jew searching for Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The trip narrative was intertwined with Jonathan’s retelling of his family history, all accompanied by live piano and fiddle.
The most fascinating parts of this play were the stories, centering around the town where his family once lived, Trachimbrod, a town split between “Jewishness and humanness.”
As the play continued, the narratives of Jonathan’s past, present, and future became increasingly intertwined. At the end of the first act, his great-great-grandmother tore through the white projection screen on which her story was being displayed, eventually ripping the screen down in the second act to reveal a dilapidated house set. Just before the town is bombed by Nazis, Jonathan screams futilely at the townspeople to leave. The line between the family narrative and the real events blurs, leaving the audience left to wonder whether a line was really there at all.
Jonathan’s search for Augustine with Alex and his grandfather explores cultural gaps and what it means to be on very different sides of trauma. Alex admits he believed all Jews “were having shit for brains” until he met Jonathan. Alex and Jonathan’s fumbling cultural interactions texture the show, from Alex misusing Yiddish vocabulary, to Alex and his grandfather ruthlessly making fun of Jonathan for being a vegetarian. Everything Is Illuminated allows for cultural gaps to be explored in a way that is accessible for every member of the audience, no matter where they lie on the spectrum of understanding.
As the cultural gap between characters thins, so does the weight of the shared tragedy they witness. When they find the last remaining survivor of the town where Jonathan’s grandfather lived, all stand in rapture as she tells the story of her town’s massacre at the hands of the Nazis. As they sat at Alex’s kitchen table, his grandfather confessed his own story, of being forced to give up his Jewish best friend to the Nazis who raided his town.
Everything Is Illuminated told a story that was strikingly human. Every tiny detail, from the projector images which chronicled Jonathan’s family history to Alex’s constant misuse of English vocabulary, pulled together to tell a story which left me in a state of utter dismay. Although this story chronicles experiences that may not be shared with every audience member, every audience member could find some details to reflect themselves into this story. The tragedy that unfolded on stage was not just discovered by the characters, but by each and every audience member.
In the most beautiful and heart-wrenching scene of the play, Alex’s grandfather delivered a monologue to the audience as the final background falls. Spotlighted by a harsh row of stage lights, Alex’s grandfather revealed that if this letter is being delivered, he is already dead. He pleaded with the audience to “try to live so that you can always tell the truth.” He died before he could finish the last sentence of his monologue, similar to how my breath was taken away by this final scene.