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‘The Book of Joseph’ probes hidden layers of family history

Sean Fortunato (standing at center) as Joseph Hollander, surrounded by (from left) Patricia Lavery, Mikey Gray, Brenann Stacker, Glynis Bell, Ron E. Rains and Amy J. Carle. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

From time to time Chicago Shakespeare Theater veers away from the Bard’s canon, whether with re-imagined classics by other playwrights or classic American musicals. But at least at first glance, with “The Book of Joseph” — a world premiere commission based on a real-life story about the life of one extraordinary man, and several generations of a single family from the Holocaust to contemporary America — it might seem like the theater has taken a more unusual detour.

Yet watching the production, a play written by Karen Hartman and based on Richard Hollander’s 2007 book “Every Day Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family’s Correspondence from Poland,” you begin to understand how intrinsically linked this work is to Shakespeare. For not only did the Bard frequently deal with the theme of exile, and how painful a phenomenon it is, but in his ever controversial “The Merchant of Venice,” he also homed in on anti-Semitism and the way it made the Jews of Elizabethan England feel like exiles in their own country. And of course the fact that this country (not for the first time) is dealing with profound and varied questions about refugees and immigrants — and that on the show’s opening night there was news of a Chicago synagogue being vandalized and marred by swastikas — only underscores the relevance of “Joseph.”

When: Through March 5
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier
Tickets: $38 – $58
Info: (312) 595-5600;
Run time: 2 hours and 25 minutes with one intermission

Francis Guinan (left) plays Richard Hollander, with Sean Fortunato as his father, Joseph, " "The Book of Joseph," at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Francis Guinan (left) plays Richard Hollander, with Sean Fortunato as his father, Joseph, in “The Book of Joseph,” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Developed by Rick Boynton and directed by Barbara Gaines, “The Book of Joseph” is, among many things, about the very different ways in which people deal with trauma and loss. Some survivors of the Holocaust (and they are now a fast-disappearing generation) refused to talk about their experiences at all, much like many war veterans. Others, obsessed by their horrific memories, needed to be on the record, with their children and grandchildren, shaped by other social and cultural forces, responding in their own ways.

Hartman’s play unfolds in two quite different acts. In the first we meet Richard Hollander (a solid turn by Francis Guinan), an American journalist in his late 50s who has just published a book about his father, Joseph Hollander (in a beautiful, unsentimental portrayal by Sean Fortunato), and the letters Joseph received from his extended family after he managed to flee his Polish homeland when the Nazis invaded it in 1939. A young lawyer and businessman from Krakow, Joseph and his spoiled first wife,  along with Arnold Spitzman (Brenann Stacker, in a “pants” role), the young son of a family friend he saves along the way, managed to make their way through Europe to Portugal, where they boarded a ship that got them to Ellis Island. There they were denied entrance by the U.S. government, yet miraculously managed to remain in the country.

Despite his own travails, from the moment the endlessly resourceful Joseph left behind his mother, Berta (played ideally by Glynis Bell) and other relatives (in richly varied portrayals by Patricia Lavery, Amy J. Carle, Gail Shapiro, Ron E. Rains, Mikey Gray and Stacker), his fervent mission was to secure visas and passage out for the rest of his family. Their letters to him, which he saved and numbered, more often than not did not reveal the full horror of their situation (or were subtly coded). But in one of the rare if ultimately misguided moments of elation in the play, they celebrate the news that Joseph has secured their passage to Nicaragua.

The play’s second act, in many ways stronger and fresher than the first, captures Joseph’s remarkable life in America, where he joins the Army and serves in Germany at the very end of the war; marries his true love, Vita (a lovely turn by Lavery), and raises a son, Richard. As a young man he refuses to visit Poland with his father. And only after his parents die in a car crash in 1986, does he find a briefcase full of those numbered letters, which he cannot deal with, and fails to have translated for many years. Once they are translated he comes to know the truly remarkable nature of the man who was his father. Meanwhile, in a classic father-son loop, Richard’s son, Craig (Adam Wesley Brown), a scholar of slave correspondence, upbraids his father for not pursuing Joseph’s story from the start.

It is a final Facebook-facilitated encounter (about which I will say no more, except that Rains is sensational) that is, all by itself,  worth the price of admission to “Joseph.” It offers a simple yet wondrous insight into the nature of those who not only survived against all odds, but prevailed.

The cast of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of "The Book of Joseph," seen against archival footage from occupied Poland in World War II. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

The cast of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of “The Book of Joseph,” seen against archival footage from occupied Poland in World War II. (Photo: Liz Lauren)