This play about the chance reunion of two old school friends is gently affecting and thought-provoking.
Even before Chaim (Sam Guncler) and Hersh (Reuven Russell) exchange one word, we know that we're in for an emotional ride. Th play begins with Chaim reading from an epic stream-of-conscious poem he's written (in Yiddish) about the Holocaust. When the two men meet, their initial awkwardness signals a personal drama that may well eclipse the horrors they experienced during World War II.
The writers quickly reveal the source of the tension between the two men. Both were students at Yeshiva in Poland prior to the German invasion, and while they were still in school, Chaim's decision to pursue more secular paths in his education drove a wedge between them that proved to be irreparable. During the course of the play, we learn that their disagreement extended to both of their families, and it continued to rankle Hersh in particular throughout the war while he was imprisoned at Auschwitz.
Interestingly, Brandes and Telushkin use the men's teenage difference of opinion as a springboard to an adult debate on theology. The men have continued down different paths during their adulthoods in a post-War world; Chaim's pursued a career as a writer and journalist, while Hersh, following his relocation to Montreal, has founded a Yeshiva. Just as they have diverged professionally, their spiritual worlds have grown distant from one another. Hersh has found renewed and increased faith, but Chaim has become almost an atheist, questioning God's existence or, as an alternative, condemning a higher power that could allow the atrocities of the Holocaust to occur. Hersh's attempts to help Chaim regain his beliefs lead to a more general quandary for the two men: What is the nature of forgiveness?
It's an unsurprisingly potent combination that's handled by both the writers and director Robert Walden with a minimum of bathos or melodrama. Light and sound cues signaling a thunderstorm and the arrival of Hersh's arrogant student Joshua (Federico Trigo) do push the piece toward over-emotion, but the production's balance is soon righted by the sensitive writing and Guncler and Russell's carefully calibrated performances. Guncler's work as the jaded and bitterly scarred Chaim is particularly effective. Not only does he manage to convey the character's often conflicted emotions and thoughts, he also embodies the spirit of the period with a performance that almost seems to have been crafted for a movie from the late 1940s.