Harrowing Play Our Class Closes Saturday

by Bill O’Driscoll

Four performances remain of this Pittsburgh-premiere production of a recent play about a Polish war atrocity little-known in the U.S.

Our Class, by Tadeusz Slobodzianek, is an artful docudrama that follows from childhood — and until death — a group of 10 classmates in the Polish village where, in 1941, Catholic villagers herded as many as 1,600 of their Jewish neighbors into a barn and set it on fire. Half the play’s characters are Jews, half Catholics.

The show closes after Saturday’s performance. On Sunday, Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre sponsors a panel discussion titled “Good Neighbors/Bad Neighbors: How War & Conflict Change the Relationships Between Us.”

Panelists include none other than Jan Gross, the Polish historian who wrote Neighbors, the controversial 2000 book that was the basis for the play. Gross is now a history professor at Princeton University.

Other panelists include Penn State history professor Robert Szymczak; Pitt lecturer Anthony Novosel; Pitt psychology professor Edward Orchek; and Pitt associate professor of history Gregor Thum. The moderator is Dan Simpson, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist and former U.S. ambassador.

The discussion is at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Frick Fine Arts Building, on Pitt’s campus. Admission is free. A light reception and book sale follow.

For what it’s worth, I saw Our Class last night, and it’s sobering stuff that certainly provides plenty to talk about.

The play is an unblinking but not unsympathetic portrait of human weakness and human brutality. Slobodzianek shows how anti-Semitism and other social fissures were part of the classmates’ lives from an early age. (“The things you learn when you’re young stay with you your whole life,” says one character, now elderly, late the in play, without irony.) But these traits only achieved fullest and most terrifying expression under the stresses of consecutive occupations by the Soviets and the Nazis.

The play scores hypocrisy, especially the religious kind, but implicitly asks audience members how they would act under similar circumstances (assuming we could even imagine ourselves in them).

While it’s hard to view a few characters as anything but villains, and a couple as anything but victims, the lion’s share exist on the same plane most of us do, sometimes laudable, often not. It is startling to learn in the program book that some of the real people who inspired these characters, perpetrators and near-victims both, were still living past the turn of the millennium.

Here’s Ted Hoover’s review of the play for CP.

Tickets to Our Class are $25-48. For more info, see here.

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