Monday, November 12, 2012

'The Book Thief' Gets an Excellent Stage Reading -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
adapted by Heidi Stillman
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Run Ended

The great thing about theater, or any form of entertainment for that matter, is the way it can surprise you.

Of the myriad stage productions of various sorts I see in a given year, some selections are certainly prompted—without advance planning—by stellar reviews, but most are part of subscription series or are shows I’ve noted months in advance (I seem to get advertising from every theater in Chicago).

While I am not a subscriber to Steppenwolf, I get to several of their mainstage shows. But I only came to know about The Book Thief—an Upstairs Theater production that was part of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program—because my mom mentioned that she couldn’t get any tickets. Seems that with several performances being done exclusively for high schools, along with The Book Thief novel by Markus Zusak being the current selection for One Book, One Chicago and an extremely reasonable $20 ticket price, the stage adaptation by Heidi Stillman has been a complete sell-out.

Knowing that my mom and sister, who had both read and enjoyed the book, wanted to see the show, I was able to respond quickly to an email about a few added performances and got 3 tickets for Saturday, which happened to be my mom’s birthday.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
Other than knowing that the book, and play, revolve around the Holocaust and are narrated by Death—wonderfully played here by Steppenwolf ensemble member Francis Guinan—I really didn’t know much about the show going into it.

So I was pleasantly surprised when The Book Thief turned out to be among the best plays I’ve seen on stage all year; I liked it even more than Steppenwolf’s widely-heralded (and rather good) mainstage work, Good People.

Having not read the book myself—I intend to—I had to have a few plot points explained by my mom and sister (it didn’t help that I was a bit sleepy during Act I), but even without having any point of reference, I felt the stage rendition stood strong on its own.

The run at Steppenwolf has now ended, but hopefully will be reprised somewhere, as while there were some moments that felt like I was watching the enactment of a book, rather than an organic stage play, for the most part this is a legitimate piece of theater that doesn’t require knowing the source material. And although it was presented toward young adults, a full spectrum of audience members certainly seemed to appreciate it.

Of course, great acting always helps. Under the direction of Hallie Gordon, Guinan was superb in instilling Death with whimsy as he guided us through the events of the play, even those of which the story’s main character, Liesel (a terrific Rae Gray) was not acutely aware.

Liesel is a teenage German girl who is not Jewish, but orphaned nonetheless during World War II due to her parents being Communists. She is taken in by foster parents, the Hubermans (embodied warmly by Mark Ulrich and a bit more sternly by Amy J. Carle) and makes friends in the neighborhood, particularly with a boy named Rudy (Clancy McCartney). Subsequently, the Hubermans take in a young Jewish man named Max (the typically excellent Patrick Andrews), promising to hide him—he is the son of Mr. Huberman’s war buddy—in the face of Jewish persecution.

Except for revealing that Liesel gets monikered "The Book Thief" by Rudy due to her propensity for stealing books from the house of woman in town (Ilsa, played by Nicole Wiesner), I’ll leave the rest of the story for you to uncover, whether through the book or a future stage rendition. Suffice it to say that it gets quite gripping, both in terms of what happens to the characters themselves, but also as a study of “bystanders.” Zusak (and Stillman) asks difficult questions about the responsibility of decent citizens—in this case, non-hateful Germans—in the face of abhorrent atrocities. Should they speak out and put themselves and loved ones at risk? Are they wrong for turning the other way?

With much resonance and excellent performances throughout, The Book Thief proved to be extremely compelling and moving, for audiences of all ages.

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