‘The Book of Joseph’ now at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through March 5, 2017, is scary. That’s not in a ghostly sense, but in the way past signs seem to repeat themselves.
The play, a world premiere by Karen Hartman developed with Creative Producer Rick Boynton, relates the Hollander family’s horrific experiences during World War II and then continues the story in current times in the United States.
The first half of the play is based on letters that Joseph Hollander, brilliantly portrayed by Sean Fortunato, received and saved from his large family in Krakow, Poland.
His mother, sisters and spouses plus two nieces were not willing to leave when Joseph got them all the needed papers and visas. A wealthy, well-traveled lawyer who saw what was happening, Joseph leaves for Portugal with wife Felicja Hollander (Gail Shapiro) and a ward, the 14-year-old son of a friend. Entry to Portugal was denied so they were taken to the US and Ellis Island.
Sharply directed by Barbara Gaines, it becomes clear during the Ellis Island interrogation and court scenes that the US government did not want to admit Jewish refugees and even were afraid of them. The questions related to religion. (Those scenes are reminders of what people trying to enter the US now are going through as visas are being canceled and refugees being turned away.)
Joseph, now divorced from his wife who has relatives in America, joins the US Army to become a citizen. While in uniform he meets and marries an American girl, Vita Fischman, charmingly played by Patricia Lavery.
When they die in an automobile accident, their son, Richard, now an adult with his own children, finds the letters Joseph saved.
Finely interpreted by Francis Guinan, Richard is the play’s narrator in Act I as the former journalist and author that he is.
Richard is touring with his book on Joseph Hollander. He took a depressing, descriptive quote from one of the letters, “Every Day Lasts A Year,” as its title.
In explaining to you, his book tour audience, the importance of the book, he refers to the story as a “universal tale of fleeing persecution.” Richard also notes that the book includes the letters and Joseph’s plea to Eleanor Roosevelt when he seeks asylum in the US.
With the aid of fine acting and Scott Davis’ scenic design you see Joseph’s family in Poland as they mouth what they have written. Actors had double roles in Act II and II. Matriarch Berta Hollander (Glynis Bell), Dola Stark (Patricia Lavery) Mania Nachtgall ( Amy J. Carle) Klara Wimisner (Gail Shapiro) Genka Wismisner (Brenann Stacker) Lusia Wimisner (Mikey Gray), Court Officer (Ron E. Rains), Court Interpreter (Amy J. Carle)
The letters made it through the censor because the family was smart enough not to complain and they used code words to describe their changing situation.
Act II gives the background of finding the letters and answers Richard’s son, Craig’s (Adam Wesley Brown) questions on why the letters sat for years before they were translated. It also introduces the old man that Joseph’s ward, Arnold Spitzman (Ron Rains), has become.
The play concludes with Richard’s grandchildren being named after the family members who died in Poland. Bring Kleenex.
Details: ‘The Book of Joseph’ is at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago, through March 5, 2017. For tickets and other information visit Chicago Shakes and call (312) 595-5600.