Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer’s critically acclaimed 2002 novel about a young American man, also named Jonathan Safran Foer, who travels to Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather’s life, can be quite a journey to describe. Two plotlines weave in and out: One is Jonathan’s travelogue, told in letters sent by Alex, his Ukrainian translator with a creative grasp of English; the other is a magical-realist history of Trachimbrod, the obliterated shtetl where Jonathan’s grandfather was born. Jonathan collects obscure mementos along the way so his family’s history, the one the Nazis tried to erase in the Trachimbrod narrative, won’t be forgotten.
A movie based on the book came out in 2005, starring Elijah Wood, but screenwriter and director Liev Schreiber cut most of the Trachimbrod history in favor of Alex and Jonathan’s comedic and touching road-trip adventure. Now Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre is taking a crack at bringing Everything Is Illuminated to stage. A new production, adapted and directed by Book-It’s associate artistic director, Josh Aaseng, will kick off the company’s 2019-20 season with a run at The Center Theatre from September 11 through October 6.
Aaseng discovered the book in 2006 in a fitting place: Ukraine, where he and his wife were working in the Peace Corps. Aaseng read the book during his frequent train rides and found himself drawn to Jonathan’s and Alex’s distinct voices and the zaniness of their chapters. “The humor of the piece was the most endearing and engaging thing from the beginning,” he says. “And then you get pulled into this really compelling, harrowing narrative that ends up punching you in the gut and breaking your heart.”
Soon the wheels were turning. “There’s a very creative use of language that [Safran Foer] uses that I always felt the theatrical medium could really capture in a way that maybe even the film can’t,” Aaseng says. “Time, space, and worlds can overlap and commingle on stage in a way that’s harder to do on film.”
Book-It has been producing staged adaptations of literary works in Seattle for three decades. For this adaptation, Aaseng started anew, not referring to the film script at all. The result is a production that will feature five actors, two musicians live-scoring the show, and “DIY live animation” with overhead projectors and shadow puppetry to bring the Trachimbrod sections to life.
Because of the layered density of the book, zeroing in on which threads of the overlapping narratives to highlight in the script presented an exciting challenge for Aaseng. The Trachimbrod narrative, which spans 1791 to 1942, “is so distant from Alex’s world,” Aaseng says, that “landing on a compelling, creative way to tell that story really kind of formed the adaptation.”
Aaseng hopes the play will touch on those enduring themes of Jewish identity, history, family, and intergenerational trauma that resonate on a universal level.
“It’s a story of creation out of a void that’s been left by apocalyptic destruction,” Aaseng says. “In the void that’s left by massacre and destruction, there’s a great need to create something new…. I think the act of creation — the act of making art — is inherently an act of hope. It implies that we’re creating for something in the future. Making art is an act of defiance against destruction.”
Everything Is Illuminated runs September 11 through October 6 at The Center Theatre. book-it.org