Controversial “Our Class” Opens PICT’s Season

Katya Stepanova and cast, photo by Stephanie Strasburg

By Alice T. Carter

Published: Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Updated: Wednesday, April 10, 2013

[photo by Stephanie Strasburg]

A contemporary play by a Polish playwright that’s set in Poland might seem a curious choice to launch the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre‘s 2013 season.

Director Aiofe (pronounced E-fa) Spillane-Hinks acknowledges that “Our Class” is definitely not Irish nor does it fit most theatergoers’ image of a classical play.

But, it’s a play that should interest the many Pittsburghers of Polish heritage and can easily fit within a larger definition of a classic.

“Here is a great text (with) not just an important story but an important question (about) what neighbors do to neighbors. This is a modern classic. It’s what I understand as PICT’s commitment to great scripts,” Spillane-Hinks says.

Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s “Our Class,” which plays through May 4, follows the lives of 10 schoolchildren as they grow to adulthood during decades of Nazi Germany and Russian occupation.

Those occupations destroyed the social fabric as it pitted family members and neighbors against each other, Jews against Roman Catholics and partisans against those who supported the invaders.

The occupying forces encouraged the divisions while they often overlooked or aided the betrayals, torture, land seizures, rapes and individual and mass murders.

“We follow them through lives that become complicated and horrible. They are the Family of Man,” Spillane-Hinks says. “It doesn’t shy away from showing the horror. But it’s the story of 10 people going through one of the most volatile changes of history and especially Polish history.

“It’s not journalism. It’s not documentary. It’s not history. It’s not purporting to be fact. It’s 10 people grabbing your arm and saying ‘This is my story, my reality.’ ”

“Our Class” will be performed in the intimate Henry Heymann Theatre with minimal staging designed by Gianni Downs — a section of chain-link fence, some ladders and 10 chairs — to suggest a school yard.

Spillane-Hinks explains she wanted “a space where actors can ‘play’ and engage. The floor suggests a schoolyard building. But you can change locations quickly.”

“Our Class” is based in part on Jan T. Gross’ book “Neighbors,” which revealed a massacre that Polish citizens committed in one small town, which took the lives of 1,600 of their Jewish neighbors.

“It’s an extraordinary piece, and the explicit intent of the playwright is to look at different protagonists at different points and say: ‘What could I have done?’ ” Spillane-Hinks says. “It’s not an indictment of ‘evil Poles.’ It’s a look at a tumultuous period. … It’s a conversation about a recent chapter of history.”

The play also explores memory, storytelling and the need to testify and the need for people to remember, Spillane-Hinks says.

Some of the events are brutal and hard to watch. That doesn’t mean that it’s a play that forces the audience to confront and deal with facts.

“It’s 10 people desperate for you to walk away with their story,” Spillane-Hinks says. “It’s told in a collaborative way that provides energy and context that helps us go through it. These deeply conflicted individuals engage us on a more-visceral level … and that allows us to be changed.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or