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Remembering those who came before us: “The Book of Joseph”

It is 1986 and Richard Hollander’s parents, Joseph and Vita Hollander, have died in a car crash. A briefcase that Richard will discover later that fateful day sits in their attic. A briefcase he will open once – to find swastika-marked letters from Poland addressed to his father – and then close again for fifteen years.

The story in this briefcase would not be told until 2007 when Richard, a former Baltimore TV journalist, published “Every Day Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family’s Correspondence from Poland.” The story continued when, at Everyman Theatre, where “The Book of Joseph,” a play about the Hollander family and based on Richard’s book, made its East Coast premiere.

The play opens with Richard Hollander (Bruce Randolph Nelson) introducing the audience to his family through his book. Act one is structured as if it is a book talk, which also serves to set Richard up as an unreliable narrator just in time for his son Craig’s (Elliott Kashner) entrance before intermission.

We are introduced to Joseph Hollander (Danny Gavigan) through Richard’s eyes. Joseph leaves Poland with his wife just before the Nazis invade. He leaves without his family, who does not believe his apprehension for staying in Poland. Richard does not have any of Joseph’s letters, except for the love letters he exchanged with his second wife, Vita (Megan Anderson), at the end of the war, so the story is told exclusively in letters from the rest of the Hollander family.

Joseph’s parts are taken from his file at the National Archives and then extrapolated from the contents of his family’s letters, almost all of which are intact. This is particularly incredible since they would have had to make it through censors before being sent out of the country. As a result, there is much that goes unsaid or is drastically downplayed.

Act one shapes the Hollander family dynamic, framing Joseph as a hero, a sentiment reiterated numerous times throughout the piece by different people. In spite of his heroism and the larger-than-life picture Richard tries to make of him, Gavigan gives Joseph a vulnerability and a quiet rage that still manages to ground him in humanity as he listens to the letters his family sends him.

He has a soft spot for his niece, Genka, played by Hannah Kelly, a UMBC alum, and most identifies with Dola (Megan Anderson), his sister who is also struggling in an unhappy marriage. His mother, Berta (Helen Hedman) just wants to hear from him, and his two other sisters, Klara (Beth Hylton, who also plays Joseph’s first wife, Felicja) and Mania (Bari Hochwald), as well as his brother-in-law, Salo (Wil Love), are at first the most hesitant to leave Poland, but also the first to adapt, and in some cases even open their homes, to the changing times.

Unfortunately their stories remain unfinished, a point Craig argues his father on for the duration of act two, where the focus dramatically switches from Joseph’s life during World War II to Richard’s own life in 2008. Richard battles with the rose-tinted view he has of his father, a view challenged by Craig, who believes Richard is an unreliable narrator.

Nelson does an amazing job walking the line of intricacies within this warped view Richard has of his father, while also translating that fear into his relationship with his son, who he has neglected on his journey to further know his father.

While the second act feels unnecessary at times and Richard’s relationship with Craig exaggerates the ‘typical’ millennial-parent relationship, it is nice to see the Hollander family get some sort of closure and for Richard and Craig to really begin to understand each other.

At the end of the play, Craig introduces his own children to Joseph and his great-aunts, asking them to remember their names. Their portraits are projected onto the set alongside a video of his children. Caite Hevner’s stunning projection design and Daniel Ettinger’s minimalistic set design come together to showcase the next generation of people who will continue to remember those who have come before.

“The Book of Joseph” will run until June 10 at Everyman Theatre, with Cast Conversations after every Thursday performance.