Everything Is Illuminated takes place in the Ukraine, where anti-Semitism still lingers in the consciousness of Eastern Europeans 50 years after the end of the Holocaust. In 2005, Liev Schreiber adapted Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, with Elijah Wood as the film’s protagonist. DeVotchKa’s dirge-like anthem “How it Ends” played over the movie trailer to prepare us for its tone of mourning. Simon Block’s theatrical version (at the Aurora Theatre Company through Dec. 16) departs from Schreiber’s by shifting away from an omniscient point of view and making Alex (Adam Burch), a Ukrainian tour guide, the play’s narrator.
Every time Alex talks to his grandfather (Julian López-Morillas) about their American guest Jonathan (Jeremy Kahn), he refers to him as “The Jew.” Alex unconsciously expels the epithet from his mouth like a cigarette smoker in the habit of spitting out phlegm. His tone of voice contains an edge of derisiveness that’s similar to the way Sacha Baron Cohen strangles the same phrase when he’s in character as Borat. But Cohen’s contempt is feigned — he is Jewish — and designed to make anti-Semites comfortable enough to reveal their intolerance on camera. By categorizing Jonathan as “The Jew,” Alex automatically distances himself from him. He turns him into an alien “other” without a second thought.
Jonathan is Foer’s semi-autobiographical proxy, visiting the Ukraine in search of his family’s roots there. He carries an old photograph in which his grandfather, then a young man, stands next to a young woman. Her name, Augustine, is written on the back. Foer’s family suspects that she helped his grandfather escape persecution (the play doesn’t make it clear why none of his relatives accompany him on the trip). Jonathan’s hired Alex and his grandfather to help him find Augustine, his grandfather’s village or anyone else who might remember him. Block tries to milk humor from the disconnect between the American’s idea of safety and privilege and the everyday realities of a former Russian Soviet republic.
As in real life, Foer’s stand-in is a vegetarian in the play. When the comically misshapen trio, along with a badly behaved dog, arrives at an inn, the Ukrainians can’t grasp the concept of a diet that doesn’t revolve around eating meat. The playwright includes a scene to emphasize their dumbfounded response to the idea. A famished Jonathan eats a potato that Alex’s grandfather has dropped on the restaurant floor. López-Morillas delivers his character’s lines with an astonishing amount of vitriol. Like his grandson, he refers to Jonathan as “the Jew” and behaves contemptuously toward him. But it’s obvious from his first appearance that the old man is hiding something. Everything Is Illuminated isn’t full of narrative surprises. As the DeVotchKa song suggests, “And you already know / Yeah, you already know how this will end.”
You can guess, if not the specific acts of wartime betrayal Alex’s grandfather was involved in, certainly the general outline of them. The play is also just as interested in Alex’s journey as it is in what Jonathan might discover. On more than one occasion, Alex informs a waitress, and the audience, that he’s as hung as the late porn star John Holmes. He’s a virile young man who’s only driven by his appetites. But after spending time with “the Jew,” he grows fond enough of Jonathan that he wants to help him out rather than just ripping him off. Jonathan’s character arc is much more limited. Block hasn’t written the part to explore the novelist’s emotional responses. We learn more about the inner lives of Alex and his grandfather than we do about the vegetarian novelist yet to be.
However, Everything Is Illuminated reveals a great deal about Foer’s artistic process. His book pays homage to his family’s ghosts and the play has them materialize on stage from time to time. Their voices show up in his mind and speak to him. They’re fully formed characters who demand his attention. He’s gone to the Ukraine to get a better grasp on the stories his ancestors whisper or shout in his ear. The author becomes a conduit for them. Foer can bear witness to the past, and, at the same time, confront the guilty, or guilt-ridden, society that participated in the extermination of his extended Jewish family.
Everything Is Illuminated, through Dec. 9, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. $35-$70; 510-843-3822 or auroratheatre.org.