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Issue Date:  November 2, 2007

-- Michael Abrams

Dan Cozzens as Elihu, left, and Timothy Smallwood as Job at the Storm Theatre
Job in Warsaw

New York's Storm Theatre presents two plays written by a young Karol Wojtyla


Warsaw, 1944. A priest strides through the ruins of a church and proclaims, before God and whoever else is listening, an unusual offering: a play as a “prayer and a protest.” It is the story of Job, dramatized from scripture by the young Karol Wojtyla, who was only 20 when he wrote the play in 1940, a day laborer in the quarries of Nazi-occupied Poland, not yet a priest.

So begins Storm Theatre’s second Karol Wojtyla festival, dedicated to performing the early work of the young actor and playwright who became Pope John Paul II. This year’s festival will also include “Jeremiah,” which, like “Job,” Wojtyla wrote before he was a priest.

In “Jeremiah,” which opens Oct. 26, Wojtyla’s protagonist is a Polish priest whose warnings to a recalcitrant nation mimic those of the biblical prophet. But where the biblical Jeremiah vainly admonished an unheeding Israel about God’s impending judgment, Wojtyla’s Father Peter is concerned with Poland. Culminating in the Cercora defeat, a 17th-century battle that ended Poland’s centuries-long reign as one of Europe’s most powerful nations, the play reflects Wojtyla’s fascination with Poland’s martyrdom to the later great powers of Europe.

The not-for-profit Storm Theatre is housed in a church off Broadway near New York’s Times’ Square. Peter Dobbins, the director of “Jeremiah” and Storm Theatre’s principal founder, explains that when he founded the company in 1997, his intention was to have a “theater that would in some way lead people to God ... [and] be a more visceral emotional experience.” The theater has produced works by Shakespeare, Chesterton and Pirandello, and though its productions are not exclusively Catholic or even religious, Mr. Dobbins remarks that the Catholic “way of seeing things has deeply affected my life” and informs his theater’s outlook.

The germs of the Wojtyla festival were planted in Mr. Dobbins’ mind in 1987, 10 years before Storm Theatre’s founding, when Mr. Dobbins found a collection of Wojtyla’s plays in a Christian bookshop in Texas. At the time, he says, he thought they were unstageable. It wasn’t until two years ago, when he had a group of actors read the plays aloud, that he realized what he could do with them.

“They’re the kind of plays that if you read them in your room, they’re not the same,” he says. “They’re interesting and intellectual, but it’s not at all what they are on the stage. In a way, they’re only understood on the stage.”

This is certainly true of “Job,” the Old Testament story of the unfathomable -- and seemingly inexcusable -- suffering allowed by God on a man “righteous before God and men.” Most Catholics are familiar with the story as read by an even voice from a church lectern. But the humanity of Job’s plight never comes through such a delivery the way it does in Storm’s production. Director John Regis chose to set the play during the Warsaw Uprising to emphasize both Wojtyla’s vantage of Nazi-occupied Poland and the humanity of the characters in the story.

Wojtyla was one of the founders of Poland’s Rhapsodic Theater, or “Theater of the Word.” This school of acting and playwriting embraced a sparse aesthetic, partly out of necessity, as the conditions of often-clandestine productions in Nazi-occupied Poland prohibited the use of sophisticated sets and costumes. But the plays themselves were written to avoid elaborate plot devices or detailed character development. Wojtyla wrote of Rhapsodic plays: “We do not find in them the usual dramatic plot, comic or tragic situations, complications, solutions ... However, we always find a problem ... The problem itself acts, rouses interest, disturbs, evokes the audience’s participation, demands understanding and a solution.” The plays were meant, above all, to communicate with the intellect, “the sphere of abstraction.” As Wojtyla explained, there are those who read a novel for the plot, characters and description -- and those who grasp the ideas underlying the writing, which indeed made the writing necessary in the first place.

In “Job,” for example, the “problem” that the play enacts is about as straightforward as it gets. “There’s not a lot of subtext,” remarks Mr. Dobbins. The challenge for director John Regis was to extract depth from a clutch of one-dimensional biblical characters. To do so, he uses a “play-within-a-play” device; the actors play members of Poland’s Home Army putting on a production of “Job” in a bombed-out church in 1944 Warsaw. The script hews faithfully to Wojtyla’s original, which in turn hews faithfully to the Old Testament’s Book of Job. Storm Theatre’s addition to the script is the character of a priest, who explains, in parallel to the progressive dismantlement of Job’s fortune, the events through which Poland similarly loses everything.

The specificity of the context does not subtract from the strength of “Job’s” general themes, however. On the play’s title page, Wojtyla notes of the story that follows: “The action took place in the Old Testament before Christ’s coming. The action takes place in our days in Job’s time for Poland and the world. The action takes place in the time of expectation, of imploring judgment, in the time of longing for Christ’s testament, worked out in Poland’s and the world’s suffering.” Job’s struggle with his faith, and doubt in the face of bad things happening to good people, is a version of one of humanity’s eternal puzzles, brought to an excruciating extreme.

The play’s setting in the Warsaw Uprising, meanwhile, adds a political dimension to Job’s catastrophe. Particularly striking is the scene where three of Job’s friends visit him, professing their pity for him while at the same time insisting that he must suffer deservedly, reflecting their belief that God would allow no ill to come to the righteous. The three friends -- Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zaphar the Naamathite -- are portrayed as generals from the three Allied nations, Britain, France and Russia. Their insistence on their own good intentions, their self-interested inaction, and their impatience at Job’s (or Poland’s) inability to “subdue pain” can’t help evoking the similar scenarios that have played themselves out again and again on the world stage.

Though strongly rooted in World War II Poland, Storm Theatre’s “Job,” like any good homily, is widely applicable. The play itself is less about the characters than the broad idea of the struggle with faith, the temptation to believe, as Eliphaz insists to the destitute and now-childless Job, that “no one suffers who is innocent.” It’s hard to believe that when we ourselves suffer, but seems to absolve us from the work of charity if we apply that logic to the suffering of others. “Job” testifies to the eternal asymmetry between what we get, what we’ve lost, and what we think we deserve.

Kathy Gilsinan is a New York writer.

On the Web
Storm Theatre's production of "Job" runs through Nov. 11. "Jeremiah" runs through Nov. 18. For more information on shows and ticket prices, go to

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2007

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