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Steppenwolf play aimed at students, but complex ideas abound

(top bottom) Him (ensemble member Francis Guinan) observes Liesel (Rae Gray) as she writes her book Steppenwolf for Young Adults'

(top to bottom) Him (ensemble member Francis Guinan) observes Liesel (Rae Gray) as she writes in her book in Steppenwolf for Young Adults' world-premiere production of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, adapted by Heidi Stillman, directed by Hallie Gordon. The Book Thief runs October 16 - November 11, 2012 in Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre (1650 N Halsted St).

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When: Through Nov. 11

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

Tickets: $20

Info: (312) 335-1650;

Updated: November 23, 2012 6:17AM

Steppenwolf Theatre’s Young Adults productions invariably speak to sophisticated audiences of all ages — one reason why they are highly in demand by the general public, as well as by the school groups for which they are designed.

This is particularly true of the company’s latest offering, “The Book Thief,” Heidi Stillman’s strong yet subtle stage adaptation of the bestselling novel by Australian writer Markus Zusak. To begin with, the story — featuring a stellar cast under the precisionist direction of Hallie Gordon — is set in Germany during World War II, and is narrated by Death, an exceptionally well-spoken, gentlemanly figure (played with aching understatement by Francis Guinan). Dressed in an overcoat and Homburg hat, he goes about his “job” with utter professionalism, if not quite the emotional detachment you might expect.

In addition, “The Book Thief” is, at its core, a story that deals with the profoundly complex subject of how people behave when subjected to immense stress and terror: how they deal with fear; how they live with secrets and cope with grief; how they respond to evil; how they adjust to poverty, hunger and despair; how they respond to words; and how their essential natures are not so much altered as magnified. The story might easily be seen as a companion piece to that emblematic non-fiction work “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but it deals with the same period from a considerably different angle.

Although a young Jewish man in hiding becomes a crucial element in the tale, we mostly meet ordinary Germans — some fully caught up in the Nazi frenzy, others quiet renegades, almost as vulnerable as the Jews. Zusak (whose mother’s memories of Germany during the war fed his imagination) is concerned with revealing the “collateral damage” to ordinary Germans. Some might find this difficult to parse, though he makes it clear that the concentration camps were of a whole different order of magnitude.

The “book thief” of the title is a young girl, Liesel Meminger (Rae Gray, a University of Chicago student who has been acting for years, and is a genuine talent to reckon with). Her imperiled communist parents have sent her and her beloved younger brother to live with foster parents — the free-thinking Hans Huberman (a lovely performance by Mark Ulrich) and his hard-nosed laundress wife, Rosa (the ever complex Amy J. Carle). Along the way, her brother dies, and though she is only semi-literate, she picks up her first “stolen” book, “The Grave Digger’s Handbook,” at his burial site.

Liesel is vulnerable but hardly fragile, and while not warmly welcomed by Rosa, she is embraced by Hans, who reads with her in their home’s basement. It is the same place where a young Jewish artist, Max (the appealing Patrick Andrews) — the son of the man who saved Hans in World War I — finds refuge. And while Liesel is continually pursued by a neighborhood boy and Nazi supporter, Rudy (deft work by Clancy McCartney), it is with Max that she develops a special bond.

Leisel also engages in a mysterious relationship with Ilsa (Nicole Wiesner, an actress who can speak volumes without uttering a word), the lonely, bookish wife of the local mayor who has an enormous library, and who subtly supplies Liesel with the books she grows to love and “steal.” (A very different sort of book, Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” becomes a useful tool for Hans.)

There will be a few survivors in this story — and a few who die but have kept their souls intact. But mostly Death (“Him”), who speaks sadly but matter-of-factly about the sweeping increase in his workload from the late 1930s to the mid-1940s, does his job.

Andy Monson (terrific as the twitch-afflicted Nazi youth) is joined by Rob Fagin and Denis William Grimes (in multiple roles), with a trio of musicians (Nikki Klix, Ian Knox and Anthony-Jon LeSage) adding to the mood. And Lizzie Bracken’s set, with its torn paper landscapes (animated by Mike Tutaj’s fine projections) and its very effective but minimalist three-story unit, is expertly lit by J.R. Lederle, with costumes by Sally Dolembo and sound by Rick Sims.

Students coming to see this demanding two-hour show will no doubt receive a great deal of preparation. But it is the questions they ask after they’ve seen it that will matter most.

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