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.