Wednesday August 23rd 2017

“The Book Thief”

Highly Recommended***** Every year, the city of Chicago and Steppenwolf  For Young Adults, team up to bring us a stage adaptation of a best selling novel. This is the required reading for Chicago students and for many, having it done live onstage makes the story become far more important. Over the years these have been blockbuster, best selling novels like “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “The House On Mango Street” and “Harriet Jacobs”. It is the intent of this program to enhance the art form of live theater in the minds of young people, who might never be exposed to this form of art on their own. This year, they have gone even further by expanding the program into “Now Is The Time” (NITT) and have added Facing History and Ourselves to the mix. All the participants; Steppenwolf, Chicago Public Library and Facing History will focus on presenting outreach programs to answer questions on social activism and civic responsibility. Many other theater companies and DePaul University will participate in this major program.

Violence involving young people is far to common in today’s society. As Mayor Emanuel stated recently “” It’s time for all of us, in every community, to come together to talk about ways to resolve our differences without violence, and to learn to treat each other with respect”. For those of you unfamiliar with Facing History and Ourselves, this organization has been working with educators for many years in order to teach them about some of the racial issues in order for teachers to be able to open up the eyes of their students. Not just integration/segregation issues, but the Holocaust and other atrocities that involve young people. The recent award winning film “Bullies” was co-sponsored by this organization. Art is a great way to get to those the city is trying to reach. Through creativity, it appears that the eyes of our youth can be opened just a bit wider.

“The Book Thief” is this year’s “One Book, One Chicago” title. Written by Markus Zusak, this strong story that takes place during World War II in Germany is world renowned for its powerful story and now an adaptation for stage has been written by Heidi Stillman of Lookingglass Theatre. This stirring production, under the skillful direction of Hallie Gordon is now on the stage of the Upstairs Theater at Steppenwolf with a marvelous cast of players. The story is about young Leisel Meminger ( Rae Gray, who many of us have watched grow up on Chicago stages shows us just how poerful an actress she has become). Struggling to survive in Nazi Germany, she has been taken to a safer home than her own. The family that takes her in Rosa ( deftly handled by Amy J. Carle) and  Hans ( well played by Mark Ulrich) are hard working, good people , who take her into their home with the understanding that she must call them mama and Papa, so the Nazi’s will not harm them.

This is a time of change and of course fear. The Nazi party was moving forward and fear was everywhere. Leisel loved books and since her new family did not have any, she looked anywhere for some. When the soldiers were burning books that were now against their law, she stole them from the fire and when she discovered that the Mayor’s wife has hundreds of books, she made that her target area to steal more books. Hans and  Rosa, not only took her in, but they also took in an old friend’s son, Max, a Jew, who they hid in the cellar. Liesel befriended Max ( Patrick Andrews) and swore to protect him and her new foster parents by keeping this secret. They read together and discussed their nightmares; his of having to run from what faced his people and hers from knowing her brother was dead and that these leaders had great power, to harm or even kill.

The story is beautifully narrated by a character named HIM ( the always reliable Francis Guinan, who represents DEATH, and yet we like him). This is 2 hours and 15 minutes of sheer artistry in story telling. While we are familiar with the atrocities that came with this war, each little story takes us to a different place and these characters are ones that have meaning and depth in their spirit and inner souls. There are many strong ensemble performances as well:Nicole Wiesner, Anthony-Jon LeSage,Iam Knox, Nikki Klix, Dennis William Grimes, Rob Fagin ( who handles at least 6 different parts), Andy Monson ( as Tommy, one of Leisel’s friends) and Clancy McCartney, as her very best friend. A stellar cast!

When death tells a story, you listen! These are words that are spoken by HIM in this production, and as we are walked through this story , one that deals with  each person’s will to live- to survive all that is placed before them, we see the terrible cost of violence. Often I wonder why we have not learned from what we know took place. In today’s society, we have gangs that are in many ways like the Nazis of that era. they form huge numbers and due to fear, people give in and allow them to do as they please. This is also true of the Bullies that that make our young people afraid to play in the park, walk to the store, or even want to ride the school bus. How can we stop this violence in intolerance? One way is to teach our youngsters that what is happening is wrong and with some of the programs now in place, perhaps we can make inroads to at least bring these levels under control until one day, maybe, it will be gone for good.

“The Book Thief” is a beautiful story, well told by a cast of solid performers. The transformation from book to stage works quite well and the emotions that it is meant to stir up in us, comes through. I know that at the end, a few tears rolled down my cheek, and yet, I walked away from this marvelous production feeling hopeful that the new generation will learn from the past and that over time, this sort of danger will cease to be as strong as it was back then or even today. Watching Guinan do his thing is a true lesson for any young actors who desire to make this their profession. He is a marvel to watch. The production is only as strong as the sum of its parts. I have spoken about the writer/adapter, director and the cast, but the final touches of making this the special event that it is is the set ( Lizzie Bracken) which is simple and easy to transform from location to location, the costumes (Sally Dolembo),Lighting (J.R. Lederle, Sound and original music (Rick Sims), projection design ( another fantastic job by Mike Tutaj) and the fight choreography by Ryan Bourque. There is no mention of the props master, but whoever handled this task, did an excellent job as well. I find props to be more important than many , but every little item that helps bring all the parts together is very important to making the production whole!.

“The Book Thief” will continue through November 11th, but unlike the normal Steepenwolf season, there are limited performances for the general public. Since this is a show geared for our youth, the majority of performances are during the week. The public performances are  limited so you might want to call 312-335-1650 or visit RIGHT AWAY. Tickets are $20 with some 2 for 1 specials on Sundays and a $5 student discount is available as well.

Steppenwolf is located at 1650 N. Halsted. There is some street parking in the area as well as a lot to the south of the theater.

There are post show discussions after each show ( Free)

To learn more about this production and the “Now is The Time” programs visit

To learn more about how others viewed this production, go to my home page, link to theatreinchicago, when you get there go to review round-up and click on Book Thief

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