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Disparate ‘Elegy’ and ‘Paulus’ explore faith

Iris Lieberman (from left) JustLeider David Wohl Bernard Beck (Papa) star 'Elegy' Victory Gardens Biograph Theater. | Anthony Robert LPennphoto

Iris Lieberman (from left), Justin Leider, David Wohl and Bernard Beck (Papa) star in "Elegy" at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater. | Anthony Robert La Penna photo

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Updated: November 22, 2013 9:53AM

Ron Hirsen’s “Elegy” (now at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater studio), and Motti Lerner’s “Paulus” (at Silk Road Rising) each deal with matters of faith, but they do so in radically different ways. The only thing they have in common is that each of the playwrights is Jewish.

As the familiar quip goes: “Ask two Jews, get three opinions.” But in this case there will just be two brief reviews:

Hirsen’s play neatly coincides with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), the Nazi pogrom in Germany widely viewed as the initial alarm bell for the Holocaust. But while it recalls that event, it is far more concerned with the aftermath of the Holocaust — the lingering psychological damage to those who survived the concentration camps, as well as the complex “inheritance” of the children born to those survivors.

Set primarily in New York in the 1970s, the play homes in on Jerry (Justin Leider), the accomplished but troubled twentysomething university student who is the only child of Helmut (David Wohl) and Hilde (Iris Lieberman). Jerry’s parents met in Berlin before the war, when Helmut was a maverick young poet who worked in the cafe owned by his “more German than the Germans” Jewish father (Bernard Beck). Helmut was eventually sent to a camp, a fate Hilde managed to avoid. But after the war, both ended up in New York, had a fortuitous encounter, married, and became parents of the son Helmut calls his “miracle child.” Of course the pressure that comes with such love and expectation can be overwhelming.

Not surprisingly, something died in Helmut in the camps, and now, working as a baker, he moves through life largely numb to his feelings. His son, desperate to connect to his emotionally cut-off father, tries to force him back to life and to retrieve his lost “voice” — his youthful passion for poetry. It proves a fierce and profoundly painful struggle for both men.

While Hirsen’s play is clearly a cry from the heart (a feeling beautifully captured by cellist Bill Meyers’s intermittent playing) it is stiffly written and largely unplayable, despite the efforts of the actors and director Dennis Zacek.

♦ “Elegy” (Somewhat Recommended) runs through Dec. 1 at the Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln. For tickets ($42) call (773) 871-3000;

“Paulus” is the work of an Israeli playwright who, in recent interviews, has spoken often about being a non-believer seeking the possibility of belief. But the story that unfolds in his play might very well drive some to pagan tree-hugging rather than formal religion.

Part Biblical pageant, part theological argument play, “Paulus,” which is receiving a richly atmospheric production, looks back to the period when, after the crucifixion of Jesus, the title character (born Saul), split from traditional Jewish doctrine, converted to Christianity and proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah.

In a nutshell (though doing your homework helps with this play) at the core of Paulus’ dramatic shift is a rejection of the notion that believers should strictly abide by the 613 commandments of Jewish law. Instead, he wanted to spread the gospel and welcome gentiles into the fold, creating a more open and immediately rewarding sense of salvation. Ironically, Paulus learns the hard way that salvation does not always come.

Artfully directed by Jimmy McDermott (on a fine set by Dan Stratton), the cast is strongly led by Daniel Cantor as the brutally abused Paulus, with Anthony DiNicola as his sweet, Sancho Panza-like attendant; Torrey Hanson as an aged “ghost” of Jesus; and Bill McGough, Dana Black, Carolyn Hoerdemann, Glenn Stanton and D’Wayne Taylor in supportiang roles.

♦ “Paulus” (Somewhat Recommended) runs through Dec. 15 at Silk Road Rising, 77 W. Washington. For tickets ($35) call (312) 857-1234, ext. 201;

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