Up to the challenge

Kev­in Mee­han has had roles in var­ied pro­duc­tions ran­ging from Shakespeare to con­tem­por­ary com­edy. But his role in the Wilma Theat­er’s cur­rent pro­duc­tion is un­like any­thing he’s done.

The Wilma is present­ing the U.S. premiere of Our Class, a play based on a true and tra­gic event in Po­land in l941. 

Writ­ten by one of Po­land’s lead­ing play­wrights, and ad­ap­ted in­to Eng­lish, it fol­lows the lives of 10 class­mates grow­ing up in the town of Jedw­abne.

Five class­mates are Jew­ish and five are Cath­ol­ic. When the play opens, it’s 1926 and they are in­no­cent young­sters study­ing and play­ing to­geth­er. But the play turns much dark­er after Po­land is in­vaded first by the So­vi­ets and then by the Ger­man army in 1941. They oc­cupy Jedw­abne and sur­round­ing areas. Anti-Semit­ism causes deep di­vi­sions and leads to be­tray­als and then to out­right vi­ol­ence and cruelty as the now-older Cath­ol­ic class­mates turn on their Jew­ish friends. 

Mee­han plays Rysiek, one of the five Cath­ol­ics, and his char­ac­ter turns from in­no­cent to shock­ingly cruel with­in the first act.

“I knew this role would put me out of my com­fort zone,”  aid the Holmes­burg nat­ive, who now lives in Cen­ter City. “But it’s good to be chal­lenged in new ways, and I was ex­cited to take it on.”

It also takes audi­ence mem­bers out of their com­fort zone, as they watch vi­ol­ence and cruelty either en­acted or re­lated on­stage. 

For in­stance, in the shock­ing cli­max to Act 1, 1,500 Jews are her­ded in­to a barn and then burned alive by their neigh­bors. The play­wright did not in­vent this; it ac­tu­ally happened. 

There is no ac­tu­al barn-burn­ing on the stage. In­stead, the stage set in­cludes a barn-like struc­ture. Mee­han’s char­ac­ter stands out­side the barn and coldly de­scribes what happened.

“It’s two minutes of hor­ri­fy­ing de­tail,” he said. “And I re­late it in a fac­tu­al way as if I’m just re­port­ing it — with no emo­tion.” 

Dur­ing pre­views, he no­ticed that when Act 2 began, there were empty seats. Some audi­ence mem­bers, ap­par­ently un­pre­pared for the sub­ject mat­ter, de­cided to leave. That also was true of one wo­man who didn’t even wait for the first act to end.

“She was sit­ting right in the front row and she got up and walked out in the middle of my mono­logue about the barn burn­ing,” re­called Mee­han. “As she left, she said, ‘This is dis­gust­ing!’ ”

As a well-trained act­or, Mee­han didn’t miss a beat as he fin­ished his chilling nar­ra­tion.

“Her exit told me that maybe I was do­ing a very ef­fect­ive job,” he said.

The cast mem­bers began pre­par­ing for their roles dur­ing the sum­mer. They watched a doc­u­ment­ary film, Neigh­bors, that first brought at­ten­tion to the pogrom in Jedw­abne after years in which it had been for­got­ten. The film­maker in­ter­viewed sur­viv­ors, who re­mem­ber the pogrom in great de­tail.

“It af­fected every­one for the rest of their lives,” said Mee­han.

The act­ors also read Jan Gross’ au­thor­it­at­ive book on the same sub­ject, also titled Neigh­bors and pub­lished in 2001. This book in­spired in part the play­wright, Tadeusz C’obodzi­anik, him­self a Cath­ol­ic Pole.

Mee­han read the book twice — be­fore re­hears­als star­ted and then again dur­ing re­hears­als.

“It was eye-open­ing in terms of un­der­stand­ing the his­tory,” he said. “And that his­tory of­ten helped ex­plain the be­ha­vi­or of the char­ac­ters.” 

Then, too, Wilma dir­ect­or Blanka Zizka ar­ranged to have au­thor Gross come from New York to talk to the cast mem­bers.

“He was very help­ful in ex­plain­ing the his­tory in depth,” said Mee­han.

“It’s such a com­plic­ated his­tory,” he said. “Po­land was a hot­bed, and when things changed so quickly — from the So­vi­ets to the Nazis — people looked for someone to pick on. So it helped me un­der­stand my char­ac­ter’s be­ha­vi­or.” 

Next came re­hears­als, un­der the guid­ance of dir­ect­or Zizka, who traveled to Po­land in June as part of her re­search for the pro­duc­tion. A journ­al of her trip is avail­able on­line at Wil­matheat­er.org/blankas-blog.

“She’s amaz­ing in so many ways,” said Mee­han. “She un­der­stands the ma­ter­i­al so well. And she makes re­hears­als in­to a very col­lab­or­at­ive pro­cess. Work­ing in the re­hears­al room, you don’t feel she’s the boss. We’re all work­ing to­geth­er. It’s a very com­fort­able work en­vir­on­ment.”

That doesn’t mean it was easy to re­hearse his role. The hard­est scene was the one in which three boys in the class rape their own class­mate in her home. Mee­han’s char­ac­ter is the first one to at­tack her. 

“We tried oth­er op­tions, like just re­lat­ing it af­ter­ward, but it didn’t work,” he ex­plained. “We real­ized the audi­ence had to see it to un­der­stand the ter­rible bru­tal­ity.”

Of course, there was no ac­tu­al rape on the stage. But Mee­han is the first one who at­tacks the girl and pre­tends to rape her.

“We spent two hours on that one scene,” said Mee­han.

The act­ors re­hearsed with fight co­ordin­at­or Mi­chael Cosenza su­per­vising them. 

“Do­ing it over and over felt aw­ful,” said Mee­han. “The only way I could get through it was to sep­ar­ate the ac­tu­al­ity of what we were por­tray­ing and just work on  the mech­an­ics, on how to do it safely.”

An­oth­er dif­fi­cult scene is one in which Mee­han and three of his pals chase a Jew­ish class­mate, knock him to the ground and start kick­ing him. Fight co­ordin­at­or Cosenza helped with this scene, too.

It’s no won­der that by the end of Act 1, “I’m ex­hausted,” said Mee­han. 

The  econd act fol­lows the lives of the sur­viv­ing class­mates after the mas­sacre un­til 2003. This act is not nearly as vi­ol­ent, but it has its own chal­lenges. In all, Mee­han is an act­ive par­ti­cipant in 11 scenes of both acts and an act­ive listen­er in three oth­ers.

Des­pite the de­mands of this role, Mee­han can meet them. He’s been act­ing ever since he had lead­ing roles in mu­sic­als at Fath­er Judge High School. Then, at Ad­elphia Uni­versity on Long Is­land, he ma­jored in theat­er.

Since gradu­at­ing in 2006, he’s had var­ied ex­per­i­ence. On area stages, he’s had roles in pro­duc­tions of Inis Nua Theatre Com­pany, New City Stage Com­pany, Flash­point Theatre Com­pany and oth­ers. He also did a one man show last Feb­ru­ary, Noc­turne.

Our Class is Mee­han’s second role at the Wilma Theat­er. Last sea­son, he played Len­nox in the Wilma’s pro­duc­tion of Macbeth, also dir­ec­ted by Zizka.

“I’m thrilled to re­turn to the Wilma,” he said. “It’s a won­der­ful place to work.” 

Des­pite its pain­ful ma­ter­i­al, work­ing on Our Class has been a very sat­is­fy­ing ex­per­i­ence. 

“The story is one that needs to be told,” he said. “It’s a mi­cro­cosm of Po­land dur­ing the Holo­caust. And it ex­plains a lot about hu­man nature and how people act in cer­tain cir­cum­stances.”

As for por­tray­ing a char­ac­ter he calls “mor­ally cor­rupt,” Mee­han said un­der­stand­ing is the key.

The act­or ex­plains: “It’s im­port­ant to un­der­stand why people act as they do. Even the aw­ful ones are still hu­man.” ••

Join the Class …

The U.S. premiere of Our Class con­tin­ues at the Wilma Theat­er, 265 South Broad St., through Nov. 13. Tick­ets (from $39 to $66) are avail­able by call­ing 215-546-7824, or on­line at www.wil­matheat­er.org or at the box of­fice.  

You can reach at rrovner@aol.com.

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