Review: PICT’s ‘Our Class,’ an important play about WWII mass murder of Jews in Poland

Our Class Cast - Post Gazette

Photo by Larry Roberts

By Bob Hoover / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek asks a lot from the cast of “Our Class” as well as the audience. Initially, these demands are the engaging ones of challenging theater; eventually they change to the burdens of an endurance exercise where drama has given way to routine documentary.

True, “Our Class” is historical theater in which the crucial elements of an event — the execution of the Jewish residents of the town of Jedwabne, Poland, in 1941 — are the foundation for a wider examination of their meaning through the tools of theater. Yet, in Act 2 of this almost three-hour play at Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, Mr. Slobodzianek abandons those tools for the “talking heads” style of a PBS documentary, and the searing drama of Act 1 dissipates.

‘Our Class’

Where: Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, Henry Heymann Theatre at Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland.

When: Through May 4: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 2 and 8 p.m. April 30, May 4.

Tickets: $25-$48. 412-561-6000 or

He tells his story through the lives of 10 classmates at the village school based perhaps on people who experienced the mass killings as victims or perpetrators. Friends as children in the prewar calm of 1935 Poland, the group of Jews and Christians breaks down as World War II brings first troops of the Soviet Union, then the Nazis into the rural town.

Did the Polish Christians or the Germans carry out the slaughter? If it were the townspeople who tortured and immolated perhaps 1,600 of their neighbors, then why did they turn on them with such hatred without German encouragement? Was the real culprit an ingrained anti-Semitism in Polish culture that burst loose in the climate of war?

While PICT’s dramaturge Heather Helinsky writes in the program notes that the play “raises questions instead of showing facts,” Mr. Slobodzianek without question indicts the Christian community. He singles out a clique of thugs that savagely attacks Jewish classmates, including raping one of them and smashing the head of another with a rock, then after the war, denies the actions.

Two gentiles, however, are portrayed saving two Jewish classmates, one by hiding a man in her hayloft, the other by marrying a woman who agrees to “convert” to Christianity.

PICT’s cast of 10 young performers meets the challenge of Act 1 of “Our Class” with uniformly powerful and moving interpretations. It’s difficult to single anyone out from the talented ensemble except to say that the haunting performances of Katya Stepanova, Vera Varlamov and Caroline Shannon will remain with you after the lights come up.

The work of another young person, director Aoife Spillane-Hinks, who stepped in after a shake-up in PICT management last month, deserves praise for her ability to coax fine performances from such a large cast.

Susanne Ortner-Roberts’ beautiful klezmer-accented clarinet music elevates the production as well, her playing and score creating an atmosphere of melancholy that hangs over the production.

Act 2 recounts the aftermath of 1941 that Mr. Slobodzianek presents in largely documentary fashion by drawing on letters and testimony. Except for scenes of a savage interrogation by a survivor of his former classmates, the play loses the immediacy and urgency of Act 1. The meaning of Jedwabne is reduced to a political issue in Poland rather than a universal one.

“Our Class,” however, should stand as one of the most important and meaningful plays of Pittsburgh’s theater season. It delivers an important message about how the power of the past continues to affect the present.
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