NEW YORK — Ghosts haunt the Theatre at St. Clement’s. The Off-Broadway house — third oldest in New York — is in an Episcopal Church between 9th and 10th Avenues on West 46th street that summons not just a handful of characters from history, but a city, a culture, a lost way of life.
Now, in Ira Fuchs’ remarkable new play, “Vilna,” the one-time Jerusalem of Lithuania is evoked.
Vilna was arguably the most important Jewish city of Eastern Europe. A haven of sophistication, education and the arts, it was systematically destroyed between World Wars I and II.
“And I was the last who saw it,” a voice intones, literally from above, in “Vilna.” The spirit warns us in advance that this play isn’t going to be easy, but doesn’t really ask our permission. “You must hear this story.”
The witness is Motke Zeidel, who, with his stepbrother Yudi Farber, are our eyes and ears at Vilna’s deathbed. We meet them as children. Motke’s mother is a doctor, his father runs a glove factory. Yudi is an orphan whose parents died in the war. His mother was Jewish, his father was German. Whether or not Yudi is considered a Jew depends on who is in charge of Vilna — and it passes between the Lithuanians, Russians and Poles quite a bit.
The Zeidel family adopts Yudi — and his non-Jewish status — during Polish reign, which means he can take over the family company when new regulations put the squeeze on Jewish businesses.
This small detail is one of a hundred little examples of what makes “Vilna” an important work. Though it couldn’t have a broader mission statement — give the biography of a city over the course of two-and-a-half decades — it’s the mundane aspects of life that are recognizable touchpoints. It grows from mere aggravations to full-on agony over the course of time. The madness of Nazism doesn’t just spring up overnight.
It was the ultimate Nazi barbarism, the attempted elimination of the entirety of European Jewry, that led to this engaging play’s birth. Ira Fuchs, a man of retirement age who studied theater in his youth and who partially self-financed this work, was taking an intensive writing course in 2016 when news broke about archaeologists substantiating a somewhat mythical story from the Holocaust.
Near the end of the war, Jewish workers tasked with exhuming and burning bodies in the Ponar Forest dug a tunnel by hand and escaped. The Ponar pits outside Vilna were something of a precursor to the extermination camps used elsewhere during the war. Many of the first mass scale, systematic killings were of Vilna Jews.
It takes a full two acts to get there, however. Along the way, the Zeidel family and others in their orbit, such as resistance leader Abba Kovner, head of the Judenrat Jacob Gens and Zionist/physician Rosa Szabad, act as a lens through which the harsh light of history shines.
If there’s a criticism I have of “Vilna” it’s that there are stretches where scenes feel more like beats on a historical timeline. A Red Army maneuver here, an anti-Semitic radio broadcast there. This is most noticeable when the play sinks its teeth in, and moments stretch out as character drama.
Motke and Yudi both find themselves in preposterous situations as part of the Judenrat. Motke is forced to draw up lists of the infirm, the first to be killed. For each batch he hands over, work permits and relative security in the ghetto will be given to others. Yudi is working for a civil engineering firm and is asked to help work on a bid for a “new processing facility for IG Farben.”
It’s Yudi’s work on camp blueprints (and adding intentional design flaws, shades of “Star Wars: Rogue One”) that sets up the eventual climax. By then “Vilna” has its share of blood and torment. I don’t exactly know what kind stagecraft was involved in the hanging sequence, but from where I was sitting it really looked like a noose around an actor’s neck.
The point is that come the end, a mist of exhaustion spreads out to the audience. You feel a bit battered. This is very much by design.
An artist’s statement bemoans that 49 percent of millennials cannot name a single concentration camp. As we approach a time when there will be no more firsthand witnesses, we must rely on the arts to “convey the emotional and intellectual incomprehensibility of the Holocaust” to make it “abhorrently tangible.”
That isn’t, let’s face it, the slickest marketing pitch to get someone to sit in a converted church for two-and-a-half-hours.
But then you remember the small, enlightening moments from Motke and Yudi’s lives: Learning their Torah portions, flirting with a showgirl, cleaning up overflowing toilets in the ghetto in the hopes of maintaining calm and dignity. “You must hear this story” could not be more true.
“Vilna” runs through April 14 at New York’s Theater at St. Clement’s.