Review: World Premiere of “The Happiest Man on Earth” at Barrington Stage Company

Kenneth Tigar portrays Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku in Mark St. Germain's "The Happiest Man on Earth." All photos by Daniel Rader
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On the verge of summer, the Berkshire cultural season is already off to a strong start, heavy on true stories and real people brought life on the stage. Barrington Stage Company’s entry into this category of drama is the world premiere of The Happiest Man on Earth, by prolific playwright Mark St. Germain, an adaptation of the memoir of the same name by Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku, who died in 2021 at age 101 in his adopted homeland, Australia.

We first meet Eddie, played by Kenneth Tigar, as the audience is settling in. A soft-spoken elderly man with a strong Eastern-European accent casually chats with people sitting in the front rows; those further back might not have noticed that the show was beginning until a hush falls over the theater.

Eddie addresses the audience directly, explaining that tomorrow he’s going to speak about his Holocaust experience for the first time in public, at his sons’ synagogue, and he wants to try it out with a friendly audience. He describes his happy family life in Leipzig, Germany, raised by loving, generous parents and immersed in the city’s culture. His parents valued education and always had room at their table for the less fortunate; his father lived by the dictum “Family first, family second, and family last. And everyone is family.”

Unfortunately, Germany under the sway of Adolf Hitler had other, more nefarious rules to live by. And so Eddie recounts his years under the deadly Nazi regime, beginning with being kicked out of school and being sent away from his beloved family to continue his education under a new name and a gentile identity. As Walter Schleif, he is found to have technical aptitude and is enrolled in a prestigious school for mechanical engineering. After more than four years of separation from his family, he graduates in 1938 at the top of his class, but his yearning to see his parents gets the best of him. He ends up at their empty house on Kristallnacht.

And so begins Eddie’s harrowing life in Hitler’s Hell, including stints at Buchenwald and Auschwitz, incredible escapes, remarkable reunions with his parents, tales of betrayals, torture, squalor, and starvation, forced marches across wintery war-torn nations, more train rides than you can keep track of, unthinkable cruelty, and death. Eddie survives by virtue of his intelligence, physical strength, ability to connect with others even in the worst of circumstances, enduring sense of humor, and his engineering education, which made him an “economically indispensable Jew,” able to keep the German war machine humming.

Near death after one final nail-biting escape from yet another forced march sure to end in execution at the hands of the increasingly desperate Nazis, Eddie is rescued by the victorious Americans, and eventually heals his ravaged body, falls in love, and finds a good job that keeps him busy and keeps his mind off the terrors he survived. He finally finds inner peace with the birth of his son, which informs his positive outlook and faith in humanity, despite all he has suffered.

As Eddie, Tigar assumes a flawless accent, the physical affect of a story-telling nonagenarian, and an appealing warmth. He perfectly embodies the character; there’s not a trace of actorliness in his portrayal, except when, as Eddie, he enacts people he has met in the course of his Odyssey: school friends, prison camp guards, Nazi commanders, fellow prisoners, his wife Flore… The audience deeply feels his pain, his triumphs, and his flashes of humor amidst horror; the performance I attended brought many tears. This is a tribute to Tigar’s acting skills, and also to the skills of award-winning director Ron Lagomarsino.

Scenic designer James Noone’s somber set, featuring a dark-wood slatted backdrop and sparse wooden furniture, takes us along the many stops of Eddie’s journey with economy and simplicity. Working in tandem with the lighting (by María-Cristina Fusté) and sound design (by Brendan Aanes), we envision ourselves in Eddie’s comfortable Leipzig living room, his school, in rumbling somber train cars, and in terrifying death camps, punctuated with the crack of gunshots. Costume designer Johanna Pan captures the character’s humble and retiring nature in a dark-toned woolen ensemble.

Playwright St. Germain, an Associate Artist at Barrington Stage Company, must be the hardest working man in theater. He cranks out high-caliber play after play—many of them based on real-world characters, such as Freud’s Last Session, Becoming Dr. Ruth, and 2021’s Eleanor, which also debuted at BSC. His work is never formulaic, and it’s always moving. Like Tigar, he gets inside his characters, resulting in a text that consistently rings true.

It might seem odd that a man who has suffered beyond belief and experienced the very worst of humanity wrote a memoir called “The Happiest Man of Earth,” but in the hands of the capable artists behind this production, we can see and feel how Eddie Jaku overcame all he endured to embrace the “goodwill-to-all” attitude espoused by his beloved father. Running at the playwright’s namesake theater, BSC’s St. Germain Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through June 17, it’s a play that should be considered required viewing in this age of increasing nationalism, growing anti-semitism, and the rise of a hate-filled, fear-mongering demagogue.

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