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Setting a horrible record straight

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Entertainment,Music,Barbara Mackay

Theater J's current "Our Class," by Polish playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek, is a riveting analysis of identity as it relates to Poland after the first quarter of the 20th century. It is a grueling, honest look at the national, ethnic and religious identity of a small Polish town.

Though that town is never named, it is supposed to be Jedwabne, where an infamous massacre occurred in 1941. In 2000, Jan Gross published a book about that massacre titled "Neighbors." It's this book on which "Our Class" is based.

The play begins in 1926 with a class of 10 young Polish students, five of them Jewish, five Catholic. The children play and sing together, defining themselves by their fathers' occupations and by their dreams. It's not until a scene where the Jewish students are made to sit at the back of the class, while the Catholic students pray in the front, that tensions develop.

Those tensions escalate when the Soviet army arrives in 1939 and escalate again in 1941, when the German army arrives. Then the play narrates the events of July 10 that year, when 1,600 of Jedwabne's Jewish inhabitants were herded into a barn, which was doused with kerosene, then ignited.

Onstage
'Our Class'
Where:Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW
When: Through Nov. 4
Info: $15 to $60; 202-518-9400; theaterj.org

Until 2001, the massacre was blamed on foreign occupations, specifically the Nazis. But in "Our Class" it is clearly the neighbors of the Jews who are responsible.

"Our Class" benefits from the simplicity of Misha Kachman's set, which uses just 10 wooden chairs and a table to represent the schoolroom and various homes.

Under Derek Goldman's direction, "Our Class" is a compelling dissection of trust, inclusion, honesty and responsibility. Goldman's extraordinarily talented ensemble works smoothly, turning Slobodzianek's unique characters into immensely credible human beings.

Laura Harris is particularly effective as one of the murdered women. Joshua Morgan is touching as the simple Wladek. Sasha Olinick is outstanding as Abram, whose recitation of his family's names at the end of this play about despair signals hope, as Abram identifies a new family in America, which comforts him for the fact that his first family in Poland was destroyed by hatred.

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