There’s a long-standing narrative trope in theater, film and books of an uptight Westerner “finding themselves” using the backdrop of an unfamiliar land as a way to frame the action, and lend it an air of exoticism. In Everything is Illuminated, directed at the Aurora Theatre by outgoing Artistic Director Tom Ross, this trope is central, as New York writer Jonathan (Jeremy Khan) travels to the Ukraine to find the literal land from which his Jewish family roots stem.
Armed only with an old photograph and a surfeit of foolish hope, Jonathan looks for the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during World War II. This quest makes little objective sense to Jonathan's so-called guides: the upbeat America-phile Alex (Adam Burch) and his ill-tempered Grandfather (Julian López-Morillas). But they've been paid upfront for the excursion, so after some pushback from Grandfather (the driver, despite his affectation of blindness), the three plus the flatulent “seeing-eye bitch” named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. set off on a stereotype-laden, buddy-flick-worthy roadtrip to find the village of Trachimbrod, Jonathan’s grandfather’s hometown.
For every scene that paints Jonathan as an ugly American, whining about the local cuisine or spartan accommodations, the play isn’t hesitant to paint a similarly unsympathetic portrait of Grandfather, whose anti-American, anti-semitic tirades go mostly untranslated by his affable grandson. Alex only wants to keep the peace, and manufacture an experience for Jonathan that will satisfy him enough to recommend the business to others when he goes back to America.
“This is your journey,” he keeps reminding Jonathan with a toothy grin. Unfortunately, for much of the first half of the play, the script is so frequently wooden and transparently cinematic in intention—if not delivery—that it’s hard to feel invested in the expedition, despite strong performances from the actors.
Block (and, I imagine, Foer, though I have yet to read the book) forces Alex to speak in his broken English even when he is acting as narrator, not speaking directly to Jonathan, and the inevitable laughs his imperfect command of the language inspires feel patronizing. Also derailing the play's momentum is an abrupt shift to the far past, to introduce characters from Jonathan’s novel-in-progress: mythologized versions of his ancestors (played by López-Morillas and Marissa Keltie) who speak in exaggerated borscht-belt patois and urge him to keep writing, as neither he nor they know yet where they will wind up.
That said, when the road-trippers at last make contact with someone outside of their insular bubble of machismo and neurosis, the play turns the previous set of tropes on their heads, revealing what had been clumsily alluded to all along: that there’s far more beneath the surface of any one “journey” than any one protagonist will ever know.
“It is my story now as well,” realizes Alex-as-narrator, after a chance-met old woman (the remarkable Lura Dolas) invites them into her home. She begins to piece Jonathan’s grandfather’s past together for them, albeit in a roundabout, inscrutable manner. And indeed, by the end of the evening, it’s Alex who’s traveled the most complete arc, his own family history revealed to him more completely and viscerally than his traveling companion’s. The story he must now “write” is that of his own future, rather than Jonathan’s fictional (and eventually bestselling) homage to the past.
Of course not every story resolves itself in optimism. The novel’s still-embryonic characters, the former inhabitants of Trachimbrod, and Alex’s Grandfather are all given backstories that would give Jerzy Kosiński’s The Painted Bird a run for its money. And like The Painted Bird, the litany of atrocities remembered begins to numb rather than to move. What does resonate throughout the play more strongly and ultimately more rewardingly is that of the tenacity of stories both lived and imagined, to carry themselves forward, to propagate, multiply, and be remembered, however imperfectly. Stories are the foundation of all that is human, and it’s certainly clear why a script with an emphasis on the imperative of storytelling would appeal so strongly to a director preparing to move on to the next chapter.
On the technical side, the show shines, including stylized sunflowers painted on the floor (courtesy of scenic designer Kate Boyd), the pitch-perfect soundscape of Matt Stines, the Eastern European shabby-chic costuming by Callie Floor and the ominous lightning flashes in Kurt Landisman’s lighting design. For fans of Safran Foer’s acclaimed novel, and certainly for fans of director Tom Ross’ ability to coax humor from tragedy and instill a sense of the mystical into his productions, Everything is Illuminated is worth a viewing. You may not come away with a sense that everything is illuminated, but illumination is not necessarily the goal.
'Everything is Illuminated' runs through Dec. 16 at Aurora Theatre. Details here.