The students of Our Class at play, before bigotry drives their adult selves apart. Photo by John Karastamatis.
In Studio 180‘s Canadian premiere of Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s 2010 play Our Class, 10 Polish schoolchildren—five Roman Catholics, five Jews—grow into adults who do horrible things to each other: aggression, rape, murder, and one especially horrible act of collective violence. Yet throughout the play, which begins in the 1920s and carries through to the early 21st century and shows the abridged life stories of all 10 of the classmates, there are displays of heroism and love, as well as simple pettiness and mundanity, giving a textured complexity to these people who inflict and sustain such horrible traumas.
The cast, a fine selection of experienced actors, all succeed admirably in portraying the age ranges of their characters (some, tragically, die much younger than others), who live their formative years under first Soviet, then German occupation. Ryan Hollyman, playing a hot-headed and fervent Polish nationalist, captivates early on, and Amy Rutherford’s Dora, a young Jewish wife who dreamed of silver screen fame, is note-perfect in recounting the tragedies that befall her. But it’s the survivors of the pogrom, especially Michael Rubenfeld’s passionate rabbi, and Kimwun Perehinec’s conflicted emigre (who is, decades later, honoured by the Israeli Supreme Court for the aid she rendered to Jews), who leave the subtler and more thought-provoking impressions: the characters who experience full lives constantly fascinate with their choices as to how to interpret the events of their youth in their later years.
Our Class is based on events that transpired in the town of Jedwabne, though Slobodzianek never actually names that town in his script. There’s been debate, especially considering the content of the supplemental material in the production’s playbill, about the more specific details as they appear in the play. No credible sources dispute that the event happened—the numbers (and the extent of the participation by the parties involved) are the contentious issues. If some details are exaggerated or altered, however, it renders the story no less valid; how we allow ourselves to mutate and perceive facts is one of the play’s integral themes.
Director Joel Greenberg manages to keep the 10 interwoven stories quite manageable, though some are difficult to listen to. He’s worked with Studio 180 on intense, documentary-style plays before (such as the gay-bashing and community rallying-assemblage The Laramie Project, the political drama Stuff Happens, and the African genocide story The Overwhelming) and he is definitely in his element here, skillfully staging both the precious lighthearted moments in the script, as well as the scenes of rape and murder.
Those difficult scenes of trauma are mostly contained in the first act, and affectingly depicted by the cast. But for us, the best element of this memorable production was the second act; after the worst has happened, we learn how the survivors grappled with their consciences, and how ideas of revenge, justice, and family dictate their lives. Some few audience members at the production we attended did not return after the intermission, including the couple in front of us. That’s truly regrettable; the second act incorporates some scenes soothing to the psyche, and others that are engagingly perplexing to those searching for reason in the truly irrational and irreconcilable.
Our Class, by Tadeusz Slobodzianek, and translated by Ryan Craig, plays until April 30 at Canadian Stage Berkeley Theatre (26 Berkeley Street), Monday–Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees on Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m, and Saturdays at 2 p.m.