Aurora Theatre’s ‘Everything Is Illuminated’ shines with powerful script

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From its title, “Everything Is Illuminated” may seem like a lighthearted, inspirational story. And while it is at times, it’s much more than that, and it’s deeper, darker and all the more beautiful for it. Aurora Theatre Company’s “Everything is Illuminated” is a gorgeous and powerful play driven by a strong script and the interlaced skills of the cast and crew.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, Simon’s Block’s script follows a young Jewish American, noticeably named Jonathan Safran Foer (Jeremy Kahn), as he travels to Ukraine to find a woman from a photograph who is connected to his grandfather’s experiences in World War II. While there, he hires two Ukrainian guides to lead his journey — the guides are Alex (Adam Burch) and Alex’s grandfather (Julian López-Morillas), who have their own pasts to grapple with. Directed by Tom Ross, “Everything Is Illuminated” made its West Coast premiere on Aurora Theatre’s stage Nov. 9.

The strength of this production, at its core, lies in the writing. Foer’s beautiful story translated well to the theater stage, adapted efficiently and seamlessly by Block. The dialogue is full of witty banter and clever exchanges, making for the kind of smart humor that invites viewers into the world of the story. The language barrier between Jonathan and Alex and his grandfather, along with their cultural differences, makes for humor that is outwardly amusing and develops the characters. The grandfather’s crazy dog — left to the viewers’ imaginations onstage but fleshed out with sound effects and effective acting around its invisible presence — clashes with Jonathan and provides many of the most laugh-out-loud jokes.

But beyond the humor is a deep level of sadness — all the characters are connected to the trauma of a devastating war. The story starts fully cemented in its humor and slowly, steadily evolves into a heartbreaking tale of the legacy of war. That slow transition is subtly agonizing but beautiful in its sadness.

The technical aspects of the production are spot-on, but it’s the stage blocking that truly stands out. Ross’ direction manages to perfectly capture a story full of movement — essentially a road-trip story — within the confines of a theater stage. The car scenes are especially memorable, with the actors, sitting in wheeled chairs, moving in sync to mimic car turns. Or, Alex and the grandfather in the front seat, sliding to the front of the stage, leaving Jonathan in the back while he wrestles with the wild dog. Ross makes this unnatural situation — creating the feel of a car ride with an invisible dog onstage — feel entirely natural. This smoothness translates to the production in its entirety — it flows so naturally, so viscerally, that you don’t notice how sparse the set actually is.

So much of that naturalness is because of the actors, all of whom shine in their roles. Jonathan, Alex and the grandfather are each distinct and big presences. Kahn, Burch and López-Morillas manage to navigate their respective characters’ interactions in ways that clash and mesh together simultaneously. Their motivations are far from being in sync with each other, yet somehow they interlace to create a plot that moves forward intricately and compellingly.

“Everything Is Illuminated” does not have a lucid, bright ending. It’s an exhausting story on the personal impact of war and, by the end, the strong comedy that starts off the story seems eons away. But the play is illuminating in how powerful and satisfying the story that plays out really is. The story is intricate and complicated, driven by the palpable power of human connection and loss.

“Everything Is Illuminated” is playing at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley through Dec. 9.

Nikki Munoz covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].