But What Could I Do? Riveting “Our Class” Opens PICT Season

Our Class was reviewed by RovingPittsburgher Reporter Joyce Kane for Roving

But What Could I Do?

The Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre’s (PICT) production of “Our Class” is a riveting and relentless story that has at its fundamental core the theme of man’s inhumanity to man.  As emotionally draining as the play is for the audience, one cannot imagine how the small but dedicated troupe can continue the pace of an almost three hour production spanning seven decades.

From early childhood through the beginning of the 21st century, Tadeusz Slobodsianek’s work follows ten classmates from the small, rural village of Jebwabne in Poland.  The ten, evenly divided between Jews and Catholics, start out as eager, playful eight year olds.  The German invasion with subsequent Russian support, followed by German re-occupation ignites the socio-political environment of anti-semitism, enemy collaboration, torture, revenge killings and the extermination of 1,600 Jews by fellow villagers.  The latter was initially attributed to the occupying Germans, but the playwright adopts the position of Jan Gross’ book Neighbors to reveal that the same classmates who played together guilelessly were the perpetrators of the herding into the barn and burning of their Jewish neighbors.   And while others continue to dispute that work and offer counter theories to what transpired on that fateful July day in 1941, history shows that it is possible, even conceivable, even though we would rather not admit it.

What is fascinating is the human study in group think and the continued self-justification for turning a blind eye to atrocities too enormous for most of us to fathom – ‘What Could I Do?’  The horrors of genocide perpetrated on neighbors and former classmates, combined with murder, torture, interrogation, rape, theft, infidelity – a continuous verbal assault on the moral conscience.

Clarinetist Susanne Ortner-Roberts

The staging is bare and stark, reflective of the bare and stark nature of the subject and the times.  Ten wooden chairs, a chain link fence and a chalk board that acts as the scene changer (annotated Lessons) are complimented by the concrete floor, piles of cinderblock, metal runged ladders and focused lighting.  As each cast member passes, whether by violence, illness or time, they exit the main performance area in a slow-motion, studied manner to observe from their afterlife behind the barrier of the fence.  Their haunting of the remaining characters, whether in reality or through a guilty conscience, is accompanied by the evocative clarinet of Susanne Ortner-Roberts.

Director Aoife Spillane-Hinks makes her U.S. directing debut with “Our Class”, perhaps drawing in part from the civil unrest in her native Ireland to explore the age-old neighbor as neighbor, neighbor as villain and neighbor as victim dynamics.

Director Aoife Spillane-Hinks

The cast is to be commended for playing the characters through all stages of life, spanning from two to seven decades, depending on their fate.  With a tip of the hat to irony, Abram, who was fortunate to emigrate from Poland to New York and thus escaped the extermination, furthers the story through letters and an ultimate return to the village of his birth.  His recitation of all of his ancestors and his own issue represented my one negative with the play…okay, we get it already – you came from a big family and you fathered a big family.

The cast featured several familiar faces to the PICT stage, including Bernard Balbot (Jakub), Katya Stepanova (Dora), Vera Varlamov (Rachelka/Marianna), Jonathan Visser (Zygmunt), and Aaron White (Menachem).  Those making their PICT debut were Justin Fortunato (Henick), Rafael Goldstein (Abram), Jimmy Mason (Rysiek), Caroline Shannon (Zocha) and Quinn Patrick Shannon (Wladek).

Rather than the refrain of ‘What could I do?’, perhaps they should have asked ‘What can I do?’  The audience is led to counter with ‘What should I do’ to their own introspective ‘What would I do?’.

“Our Class” runs from April 10th through May 4th at the Henry Heymann Theatre at the Stephen Foster Memorial, University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus.Pittsburgher Report and Positively Pittsburgh.