by Roseann Cane

The Barrington Stage Company has opened their season with a play that’s a mesmerizing punch in the gut. I urge you to experience it.

Eddie Jaku, the man at the center of the play, was born Abraham Jakubbowicz in Leipzig, Germany in 1920. As playwright Mark St. Germain writes,

“For 800 years Leipzig was a centre for arts and culture; a city of books, music and opera. One of the most cultured, sophisticated societies on earth that Jews were an important part of since medieval times, the home to Bach, Mendelssohn. As a child , I was more impressed that our zoo bred more lions than any zoo in the world. That was a real accomplishment…My father, Isidore, was an immigrant from Poland but as proud a German as could be. He said ‘we are German, and then we are German Jews.’”

On Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, Eddie returned from boarding school to an empty house. Nazis burst in at dawn, beat Eddie, murdered his beloved dog, and brought the young man to Buchenwald.

How does one convey the indescribable? How does a human being communicate experiences that reach beyond the depths of suffering and cruelty caused by fellow members of the human race?

Playwright Mark St. Germain has crafted an astonishing one-man play based on the memoir of Eddie Jaku. That actor Kenneth Tigar, from the moment of his entrance, gently invites the audience to accompany him on his razor-sharp and very specific reminiscences, and immediately draws us in, is a remarkable achievement.

Tigar’s great gift is his phenomenal ability to thoroughly embody Jaku and have his audience hang on to his every word. The performance is utterly remarkable. Tigar’s uncanny capacity for transmitting such experiences most of us would find unfathomable left me breathless.

Ron Lagomarsino (who directed the unforgettable Chester Bailey at BSC in 2021) skillfully, even tenderly, guides Tigar from scene to scene of Jaku’s astonishing life, at a brisk clip that manages to deliver what could be unbearable to contemplate were we not so engaged with Jaku. James Noone’s deceptively simple scenic design lends itself perfectly to the myriad adjustments we easily navigate along Jaku’s journey, and the lighting design by María-Cristina Fusté, along with the sound design and additional music by Brendan Aanes, beautifully enhance that ride. Johanna Pan’s costume design has the exceptional chameleon-like ability to convey Jaku’s experience at every step.

The Happiest Man On Earth is an important play, not only because it is so expertly presented, but because it gives us the opportunity to identify with the suffering of a specific human being who has been targeted for genocide. Even in the United States, we find ourselves in a time where human rights become more threatened every day, and our only hope to control these threats is for each of us to grasp that victims are human beings, just like all of us.

Barrington Stage Company presents the world premiere of The Happiest Man On Earth, by Mark St. Germain, based on the memoir of the same name by Eddie Jaku, directed by Ron Lagomarsino, at the St. Germain Stage of the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, through June 17, 2023.

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