Review: ‘Our Class’ deftly tells stark story, leaves judgment to viewer

Katya Stepanova, Our Class, photo by Stephanie Strasburg, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Katya Stepanova, Our Class, photo by Stephanie Strasburg, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

By Alice T. Carter

Published: Sunday, April 14, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Updated: Monday, April 15, 2013

As Vice President Joe Biden recently observed: “All politics is personal.”

That’s true whether it’s something as minor as your municipality’s decision about repaving your street or as monumental as which group rules your country or someone else’s.

Examples as current as the inner turmoil in Egypt or the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict as well as past struggles in Bosnia and Northern Ireland are easy to cite. But neighbors can stop speaking to each other and on occasion come to blows over something as minor as the placement of a one-way sign.

It’s the how and why of people’s reactions that is at the heart of “Our Class,” the drama that opens Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre‘s 2013 season.

The source for Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s play was Jan Gross’ controversial book “Neighbors” that revealed that the 1941 torture and killing of the Jews in the Polish village of Jedwabne was not the work of the Nazis, but the villagers themselves. Ryan Craig created the English-language version of “Our Class” that Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre is performing.

“Why did things end up like this? Who was to blame? … It isn’t my role to answer these questions. My role is to ask them,” Slobodzianek says.

Slobodzianek further personalized the story by focusing on 10 schoolchildren who grow from age 8 into adulthood and old age between 1935 and the present.

Both Jews and Christians weather — with varying success — invasion by Russian and Nazi German conquerors, rape, murder, anti-Semitism, confiscation of property and other brutalities. Even traditionally happy moments such as a wedding or a birth have a grim side.

As Slobodzianek says, his job is not to point fingers.

The villagers attempt to survive successive invasions that bring conflicting loyalties, betrayals, financial reversals and physical as well as political peril. Their roles as victims, perpetrators or powerless observers change as fortunes and governments shift. No one gets off easy.

At two hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission, this is not an easy play to watch. It’s not that anyone’s not doing his or her job properly.

Director Aoife Spillane-Hinks keeps the proceedings moving cinematically through the progression of scenes, distancing some of the more horrific moments with stylized actions.

Gianni Downs’ set is spare, utilitarian and appropriately dark — 10 straight-backed wooden chairs, a stretch of chain-link fence, and three metal ladders — accompanied by Jim French’s moody pools of light and Rachel S. Parent’s functional costume designs.

Elizabeth Atkinson’s ominous and eerie sound design and clarinetist Susanne Ortner-Roberts’ live musical accompaniment add atmosphere.

The cast of 10 are all talented and articulate at portraying their justifications, rationalizations and explanations for their actions or lack of action.

Some characters are more vividly portrayed than others.

It’s often difficult to follow the arc of a specific character’s journey. But maybe that’s the point.

Rafael Goldstein’s Abram writes cheery letters from America while his former classmates are struggling with war, repression and treachery.

Vera Varlamov’s Rachelka renounces her Jewish religion to survive.

Others watch without intervening as one former classmate has his skull shattered or another has his business confiscated.

Their roles as hero, victim or abuser or transgressor constantly morph until everyone owns a share of the blame.

As we find our own understanding and disapproval shifting, we’re left to ask ourselves Slobodzianek’s overriding question: “What would I have done?”

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