EXCERPTS FROM THE ARTICLE
Below are excerpts from the May 4, 2018 Baltimore Sun article on The Book of Joseph, by Tim Smith.
Working as a reporter for the Baltimore News American and WBAL-TV decades ago, Richard Hollander routinely followed leads. But when a dreadful incident in his own life — the 1986 death of his parents in a car accident in New York — led him to discover something that would clearly make an unusual news story, he backed away.
“I was doing what people do when family members pass away,” Hollander says, “cleaning out their house. In a crawl space in the attic I spotted a nondescript briefcase. There were about 200 documents inside with swastika stamps on them. I was a complete coward. I let that briefcase sit in my [Baltimore] house for many years.”
When Hollander finally decided to explore the collection, the result was a book he co-edited, “Every Day Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family’s Correspondence From Poland,” published in 2007. A decade later, that work inspired a play, Karen Hartman’s “The Book of Joseph,” which receives its East Coast premiere this week at Everyman Theatre.
This family history, which unfolds in “Every Day Lasts a Year,” does not automatically seem like a natural choice for a stage adaptation. “It’s an academic book,” says Hollander, who adds that the letters from Poland were censored often to the point of blandness.
None of that deterred playwright Hartman. Besides, she already had an idea in her head about crafting a play involving a parent and old letters.
“As it happens, after my father passed away, I found in his garage his correspondence to my mother when he was in Vietnam,” Hartman says. “They divorced after he came back, which you can kind of tell from the letters. I had a heavy and mystical encounter with these artifacts and always wanted to make something out of that. But then this project came along.”
Commissioned by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre to write “The Book of Joseph,” Hartman zeroed in on the issue of Hollander’s delay in dealing with the briefcase.
“I had immediate compassion for this young father in his 30s whose parents are gone overnight, and then he finds these letters with creepy Nazi stamps,” the playwright says. “Could his father have been a collaborator? How did he get out of Poland? For me, the story of the play is: What do we ask, and what do we not ask?”
As an entry point into all of this, “The Book of Joseph” shows the character based on Richard Hollander giving a talk about his book.
“He becomes an immediate tour guide for the audience; he takes you to a certain point, but then doesn’t want to go any farther,” says Noah Himmelstein, director of the Everyman production.
To help break the barrier, Hartman relies on a younger-generation character, inspired by Richard’s son Craig.
“Craig is a relentless millennial in the play,” Hartman says, “confronting his father about what he didn’t ask of his own father. One arc of the play is the story of the past, about life and death, high stakes and huge questions. The other, larger arc is: How do the descendants reconcile and heal?”
Despite the heavy subject matter, Himmelstein sees plenty of light in “The Book of Joseph.”
“I think people will be surprised by how much joy there is,” the director says. “In the day-to-day existence in the ghetto, you can feel the optimistic way people could see the world and the sun coming up. On a very fundamental level, they realize what they have, and find such joy in that. These people were ultra-human.”