NEW YORK — When Rimas Tuminas first created “Smile at Us, Oh Lord!,” a theatrical adaptation of two novels by celebrated Jewish playwright Grigory Kanovich, in the early 1990s in Lithuania, the former Soviet republic was just emerging from its tumultuous struggle for independence. As the first of the republics to declare its sovereignty, Lithuania felt the full wrath of its parent state, with eruptions of violence and bloodshed, political and economic sanctions, and attempts to overthrow its elected government.
“Smile at Us, Oh Lord!,” staged by Tuminas’s Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia, actually takes place in Lithuania at the turn of the 20th century when the Russian revolutionary movement, aiming to overthrow the czarist regime, was gaining momentum. But Tuminas saw clear parallels between the two time periods. And now once again, he notes, the bullets are flying.
“When I worked on the first version of this performance 20 years ago, it was a time of turbulence,” Tuminas says, speaking through a translator, in a rehearsal hall at New York’s City Center, where “Smile at Us” played four performances last weekend. “Now the situation, the conflict between Europe and Russia with the Ukraine, is repeating itself. It also resembles the era in Kanovich’s novel, which is set more than 100 years ago on the brink of the 20th century. That’s why I thought it was the right time to revive the play in Moscow.”
Presented by the Cherry Orchard Festival, the production comes to the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston Friday and Saturday in association with ArtsEmerson.
In making his point, Tuminas quotes the play’s central character, Efraim Dudak (Sergey Makovetskiy, alternating performances with Vladimir Simonov), an elderly, stoic Jewish stonecutter from a Lithuanian shtetl. He’s speaking to his deceased wife, Leah, at her grave, about their son, Girsch, who was swept up into the revolutionary fervor and attempted to assassinate the powerful governor-general of Vilnius. He is now awaiting trial, so Efraim decides he must travel to Vilnius to visit his son in jail, hoping to reach him before he is either hanged or exiled.
“What, Leah, has happened with the world? . . . What a terrifying time. So few thoughts, so many more bullets. It’s better to have a bullet-like thought than a bullet instead of thoughts.”
On his road trip to the capital, Efraim brings along two Jewish traveling companions. Shmulé-Sender (Aleksei Guskov, alternating with Evgeny Knyazev), a water carrier, offers to escort his friend Efraim to the capital on a carriage, pulled by his beloved horse. Another compatriot, Avner Rosenthal (Viktor Sukhorukov), a once-prosperous grocer, and source of whirlwind comic relief, has been reduced to a life of impoverishment after his shop burned down.
Tuminas sees the play in part as representing “the eternal story of parents and bidding farewell to their children,” he says. “Along the way, Efraim and his companions add more travelers to join them on their carriage. And it turns into a story about parents going to visit their children — this eternal story of parents trying to get closer to their children, while the children are moving away from the parents and starting to live their own lives.”
The trio of travelers consider their trip to Vilnius, which they call the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” to be a kind of pilgrimage to the Promised Land. But along the way, the men encounter unexpected dangers, from a pack of wolves that attack their carriage late one night to a gypsy who steals Shumlé-Sender’s horse.
For Tuminas, who like Kanovich grew up in Lithuania, the story is an intensely personal one — not just because he witnessed the collapse of the Soviet regime, but also because of his connection to the Jewish community of his hometown.
“In my childhood, we lived closely with the Jewish people, and I had many friends among the Jewish kids. I just remember all those scenes from everyday life when a cart pushed by a Jew would come, and he would trade and exchange some things. And in Lithuania we are a very close people. We’re people of one fate. I cherish the story and the history of my parents and my ancestors, the same as Kanovich does in his novel.”
The attack by the wolves, Tuminas says, could be interpreted as a metaphor for a pogrom. And indeed, the play climaxes in a metaphorical finale foreshadowing the impending suffering and catastrophe of the Jewish people in the first half of the 20th century.
“There is no good news these days for Jews,” Avner says mournfully at one point.
“My character responds, ‘But isn’t everybody waiting for some good news? Not only Jews, but everybody?’ This is one of the key ideas in the play,” says Aleksei Guskov.
“Smile at Us” lacks the ravishing stage tableaus and elegance of “Eugene Onegin,” which the Vakhtangov Theatre and Cherry Orchard Festival brought to Boston a year ago. After all, this is a story about destitute, shtetl-dwelling Jews in turn-of-the-century Eastern Europe. Instead, “Smile at Us” offers a dark, sorrowful lament, with moments of piercing and poetic imagery. As in “Eugene Onegin,” there are tinges of the dreamlike and fantastical, whether it’s a she-goat (Yulia Rutberg) floating in midair as the curtain rises at the beginning of the play or the haunting final tableau.
Tuminas says that the most difficult challenge was how to depict the three men’s arduous odyssey across the countryside and forest on their way to the capital.
“How can you show the road? How can you make this cart move without any technical gimmicks, installations, or brisk video images? I always brush off those kinds of solutions anyways, because the imagination of an actor and an artist can work miracles on stage, without any technical effects or gadgets.”
As much as “Smile at Us” is a drama that illuminates the Jewish experience in the 20th century, Tuminas believes that the heart of the piece is a universal human story about the relentless march of time.
“The play should give audiences a sense that time flies, that it’s slipping away from us,” Tuminas says. “But it’s also important to not become cynical or angry with the fact that time disappears and to not live in fear. You have to learn to accept that we only have so much time on this earth.”
Smile At Us, Oh Lord!
By the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia, based on
the novels by
Presented by the Cherry Orchard Festival, in association with ArtsEmerson
At: Cutler Majestic Theatre, Friday and Saturday
Tickets: $45-$125. 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.