Our Class: A play reading

Monday, April 13th 2015

By: Trish
Edited by: Marcy

"24 Hour Musical's" loss was most definitely my gain, as the "Our Class" reading was much more budget friendly, and therefore doable for me! Staged at Temple Emanu-El's Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning as part of their Holocaust Remembrance activities, the reading was certainly appropriate. The playwright, Tadeusz Slobodzianek was on hand for a brief pre-show Q&A. The full production was recently staged at London's National Theatre, and has gained recognition across Europe & Israel. Last night was the first showing of any kind, here in the US.

And they had quite a large turnout. I had a general admission ticket and was told that doors would open at 6:15 for the 7:00 event. I arrived at about 6:25 and there were already 150+ people on line! They ended up with close to 900 people!

The main action centers around a group of classmates whom we first meet as youngsters in the 1920's. The play follows this group across several decades, from their humble beginnings in that small Polish classroom, through the events surrounding WWII and culminating in 2003 with the death of the last student. The story is intense, and sometimes very graphic in its depiction of events. The actors portraying the characters are "age appropriate" for the roles they play. The oldest actor on stage, Alvin Epstein, plays Abram, the longest surviving student. But this also means Randy's character does not survive through the end of the play.

Please note that the quotes throughout the report are paraphrased from the original spoken script.

Randy is seated at the corner of the stage pretty much as far away from me as possible. The reading itself opens at the school in a small town in Poland in the mid 1920's. Each student is introduced with his/her name flashed on the screen behind the stage. As their names are shown each actor repeats the same line... In childish voices they say their name and, "I am the son/daughter of ______, and I want to be_______ when I grow up." Randy is one of the last to speak, announcing "I am Rysiek, son of Teodor the builder and I want to be a pirate when I grow up!"

He continues to speak in giddy tones as he tells us that he has written a poem for Dora, (Mamie Gummer) a Jewish girl in the class. He really likes her, even though she is not a Catholic. He tells us he has worked very hard on his poem and carefully written it on pink paper shaped into a heart and has sprayed it with his mother's favorite perfume. The poem reads, "I never want to be apart, so here I give you my heart." He's very proud of it and excitedly hides it in Dora's bag. Dora sees him and wonders out loud what that Rysiek is doing near her things. She declares that he's, "quite nice to look at, but a bit dense." The line got quite a few chuckles from the audience.

The commotion catches the attention of the other students, one of whom grabs the paper and waves it in the air, while the others tease & taunt Rysiek in the way that only 8 year olds can. Ryseik is visibly upset and tries in vain to make them stop.

The next scene has jumped forward a few years and the class is now in their early teens. The "teacher" instructs them torecite "The Apostles Creed." Rysiek insists that it can't be done properly with the Jews in the class and demands that they move out of the way. To do this Rysiek and Jakub (Grant Kretchik) must switch seats. Randy manages to give the other actor quite a smug smile when they pass as he struts across the stage with all the false confidence of a true teenager. (And closer to me!) He joins Zygmunt, (Boyd Gaines) Heniek, (Austin Pendleton) and Wladek, (Brian Murray) as they recite the Creed. These four boys, as a group, will figure prominently in the action to come.

Meanwhile, things in the town are not going well as Joseph Stalin has invaded and has begun taking control of all aspects of city life. He has tempted the youngsters with promises of wonderful times at the cinema. But they are becoming restless. Zygmunt's father has gone missing, Rachelka's (Ellen Burstyn) father has lost control of the mill. At the cinema they declare that "Poland is not dead yet," and humiliate the Soviets by singing the Polish National Anthem.

With all the teenaged exuberance they can muster the four boys decide to plot for the assassination of Stalin. As they discuss who could do such a thing, Rysiek defiantly declares, "Probably me." They form what they call the White Eagle resistance and "sing" a rebel chant for Poland. (A soloist sings all the rather haunting musical interludes for this reading. In a full production the actors themselves would sing.)

While celebrating their decision in a secret location, the group becomes violently drunk. Two of the boys wander off to sleep it off, leaving Rysiek & Heniek passed out on the floor. Wladek makes it home but Zygmunt arrives home to find Soviet soldiers waiting for him. He has been secretly working with them in the hopes they will help him find his father. He tells them where to find the other boys. As the soldiers approach, Heniek manages to get away but Rysiek is captured.

Randy gives a passionate description of the torture that Rysiek endures at the hands of the Soviets.
"And they beat me, and they beat me. And they hit my head to the floor with such force that I was sure that my brain had split. And they used their batons. And they took the poker from the fire and they burned me. And they said, 'Confess,' 'Tell us who are your accomplices." But I did not. I did not give them the names of my classmates."

Months later, a beaten and sickly Rysiek is dragged from his cell by the soldiers and marched into the forest. Rysiek describes in vivid detail the events of the night, "And they gave me a shovel and told me to dig. And I do. And I look at the stars above me and wonder how I have wound up here. Is this where I will end? But the soldier doesn't shoot me. He tells me to spend the night thinking and confess." He does think and he comes to the conclusion that in must have been Jakob. After all, didn't he tease me? Hasn't he married my Dora? The year is now 1939, Rysiek is 20 years old.

By 1941 the Germans have ousted the Soviets in the occupation of the town. Once again, the four classmates have come together and in their despair and desperation have worked themselves into a frenzy looking for revenge - any revenge, however misplaced. Like others in the town, they are convinced by the Germans that the Jews are the cause of all their problems.

Jakob and another student Menachem, (John Pankow) look to escape. Menachem takes refuge at the farm of another classmate, Zocha (Kathleen Turner) and her elderly husband. Rachelka is hiding in the attic of Wladek's home.

But Jakob, who has left Dora & their baby at home, is not so lucky. He is confronted by Rysiek and the others and chased through the town square. They take turns beating him with posts they pulled from the fence. Rysiek has taken the largest post and, "with all my might I hit him, and I hit him. But he doesn't die and he is in pain. So I work loose a large brick from the path, and bring it down on his head. He stops moving. I feel something wet on my face, and with my fingers I wipe Jakob's brains from my face. I lick my fingers clean."

The group now goes to Jakob's home where they find Dora and baby Igor. Rysiek confronts Dora and removes his shirt to display the scars, the "brands" he bears from the Soviet torture and demands Dora do the same. He describes how seeing Dora without her blouse makes him hard. They force her to remove her skirt as well, and they take turns holding her down while each, in turn, rape her repeatedly. Rysiek, in his delusions, sees this as not only as revenge for what he thinks Jakob has done to him, but also as retribution for Dora rejecting him when they were younger.

The next day the Jewish men, who had been forced by the Germans and some Polish vigilantes to break apart the statue of Stalin are then ordered to carry the pieces to be buried in a barn. Once inside, the men are stripped and violently slaughtered by the Germans & the Poles and are buried in a pit with the statue pieces. Rysiek is one of the Poles assisting in the massacre. Later that evening, the Jewish women are brought to the barn. They are told they will be sent to the ghetto in the morning. Dora sees Rysiek and begs him to help her. But he is now completely insane with his blind hatred of the Jews, and he hits her with the butt of the axe he is holding. He laments that he felt bad because, "She was so pretty." Along with others in the group they lock the barn doors and set it on fire. Everyone inside was burned alive.

It's now 1942, and Wladek wants to help Rachelka who has been hiding in the attic for several years. She is the only Jewish person left alive. He agrees to marry her, but only if she converts to Catholicism and she takes the name Marianna. (Rysiek would not allow a Jew to take the name of the virgin Mary) The three other boys agree to help, even though Wladek's mother is against it. Rysiek argues that it's not right to baptize a "Commie Jew," but relents when the others convince him it's the only way the Bishop will perform the wedding.

At the wedding Rysiek once again becomes violently drunk and begins hallucinating about Dora. He wails that he was in love with her, but she married that "scum Jakob." He pulls a gun from his coat and begins to aim in at the party guests, while bemoaning the betrayal of his beloved Dora. The other boys manage to grab the gun and calm him down.

Later that year, Rysiek is now working for the German police, and he is issued an uniform and a rifle and a bicycle. He is also working with the underground Polish Resistance movement. While discussing ideas with Zygmunt, they agree that in order to distract the Germans from their connection to the resistance they must prove their allegiance by delivering a Jew to the Germans. But all the Jewish citizens were massacred in the barn. The only one they know of is Wladek's wife. Rysiek feels only momentary guilt at the prospect of turning their classmate over to the Germans.

At the house Wladek's mother quickly agrees to hand over Marianna. She is begging and pleading with Rysiek not to do this, "I am your classmate. Does that mean nothing?" But Rysiek is determined and arrests Marianna. He ties her to his bicycle and drags her down the road toward the German camp as she struggles to remain upright. When Wladek returns home he immediately chases after them.

Rysiek sees Wladek approaching and he stops the bike to confront him. He waves the rifle, saying "Please don't make me shoot you Wladek. I don't want to but I will." He demands that Wladek but his own gun down. When he does, Rysiek lowers his rifle only to be stunned when Wladek shoots him in the stomach, using the gun he had in his pocket. He cries out in pain, "Why? Oh, it hurts. Why would you do this?" He pleads, he cries... "Please, help me. We are classmates. Please!" Wladek shoots him in the ear. As he dies, Rysiek's final words call out to Dora. He was 23 years old at the time of his death.

Randy exits about 20 minutes into the second act, retreating to the back of the stage to sit with Jakob and Dora. The remainder of the reading deals with the ever changing balance of power during and after the war. Zygmunt is arrested for his participation in the massacre at the barn. Menachem is the one who arrested him as he is now working for the Polish government. Henieke, who has entered the priesthood, is also arrested. Wladek cooperates and he and Marianna leave Poland. Power balance once again changes and Zygmunt and Henieke are released from prison. Zocha had moved to the US, and has remarried.

Throughout the play, letters from Abram, who moved to the US while they were all still young, are read and depict the complex relationships of the classmates through the decades.

Needless to say, the reading was extremely powerful I can only imagine what a full production would be like. All the actors put their ALL into this performance. Several times I was moved to tears by the sheer magnitude of the images their words were creating. I am grateful I had a chance to experience this. I hope I was at least somewhat successful in my attempt to convey the intensity of the performance.

I did not wait for Randy afterwards, as the crowd was huge! The show also ran much later than expected, and I believe there might have been some sort VIP reception afterwards. He wore a light colored button down shirt and dark slacks with brown shoes. The cast was given bouquets of flowers during curtain and the audience gave them a standing ovation. A very memorable night.