For Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins, who founded Actors’ Gang and serves as its artistic director, presenting plays that are relevant to our time is paramount for the company. To that end, the Culver City-based theater’s current offering is the U.S. premiere of “Oy,” a tale set in 1995 of two German-Jewish sisters, Selma (Mary Eileen O’Donnell), age 89, and Jenny (Jeanette Horn), age 86, who have accepted an invitation to visit Osnabrück, the town in Hanover, Germany, where they were raised and which they left as Hitler was consolidating his power. Because the sisters are among the dwindling number of survivors with recollections of the Nazi era, the town’s mayor has invited them to come to bear witness to that history for the younger generation.
As the story begins, the two women are back at Selma’s house in Paris, ruminating on their trip and their memories of the past. The question, “Is the past relevant?” is, according to Robbins, the most important theme explored in the play.
“I think there’s something in human nature,” he said, “for some reason, I don’t know why, that wants to make the past irrelevant, that wants to make it ‘another time,’ to say, ‘That would never happen now,’ or ‘It can’t happen here,’ or any number of modifications or compromises. The truth is that until we really understand history and understand the root causes of something as nightmarish as the rise of Hitler, it will continue to happen; it will continue to visit itself upon us.
“This play, for me, is extremely relevant,” Robbins said. “If you go over to Europe, there is a right-wing strain in the oppositions, the neo-Nazis. The hatred still exists. As long as the hatred exists, this play is relevant. Unfortunately, it’s still relevant today.”
Though the work is basically fictional, playwright Hélène Cixous, 75, speaking from Paris, said the characters were inspired by her 102-year-old mother and her mother’s younger sister. Their family, which was Jewish, had lived in Osnabrück for centuries, and, decades after the war, the sisters were invited back by the mayor.
“My mother and her sister were wondering whether they should accept or not, because it was really an ethical and political decision. So, they decided to accept. Of course, all kinds of things happened, which I excerpted and condensed and turned into metaphors. They really did go back to the city of their childhood, where nothing was left except ghosts.
“It was a way of reconciling the city with its past,” Cixous said. “It’s something that happens in some cities in Germany. In Berlin they do it. It’s not everywhere. Here and there, there are cities that do this type of thing — open or build synagogues where there are no Jews. It’s very paradoxical.”
The paradoxes and the complex layers of meaning underneath what might appear to be a simple surface are part of what attracted director Georges Bigot to the work.
“There is life in the play, because the playwright chooses two old women to transmit the themes about big questions, such as whether or not to forget, the evocation of racism from the beginning of the century and the racism of today, the universality of these two characters and also to forgive or not forgive. These questions are still burning.”
The idea of forgiveness in the play, Cixous explained, is not forgiveness in the Christian sense.
“It is simply coming to terms with reality and its complexities. It is exactly what happened in South Africa. It’s ‘I’m not going to judge them.’ You can’t be a judge. That would mean, ‘I’m superior morally,’ which is, of course, something that no one is entitled to think,” she said, adding that “those Germans who have invited the sisters belong to another story. Of course, they’re not responsible. The fact that they make these gestures is quite remarkable.”
At the center of the play is the idea that, once the visit is over, the sisters can discuss things they didn’t dare express in Osnabrück. “There is a subtitle,” Cixous said, “which is ‘This, You Mustn’t Say.’
“They refrain from saying what they see — for instance, the brutality — and something that can be murderous in the head of the Jewish community, who beats his wife, [which] leads to her death.”
Another forbidden subject arises from the pun on the title, “Oy,” which in French sounds the same as the word for garlic.
“The Nazis would say that the Jews reeked of garlic. They would walk by and pinch their noses and say that it was horrible, that the Jews were impregnated with garlic,” Cixous said, adding that her own grandmother, whom she called “a very distinguished lady,” didn’t use garlic: “And she would tell me, ‘Only the Polish use garlic,’ which was a way of being innocently racist.”
In the play, Selma says: “Everyone is racist. Jews were the most racist of all. With the Poles. The Poles were always having pogroms; they’d turn up on our doorsteps, a bunch of wretches. That’s a thing you can’t say — no point spitting in our own soup. They’d turn up on our doorsteps, they’d say, ‘We are miserable poor souls.’ They’d come to the Elders. The Elders would offer them tickets to the next city.”
The play’s weighty ideas are leavened with humor, which is at times gentle, as when the two old women clash like children over whose memories are the most valid; at other times, the humor can be quite dark. At one point, the sisters talk about the fact that since there were no Jews left in Osnabrück, the townspeople imported and paid Jews who were “not really Jews” so there would be enough for a service in the rebuilt synagogue.
“They were Russians,” Cixous said, “and they knew nothing about Judaism or being Jewish, but it was important that they make ‘as if.’ It was all a kind of ‘make as if,’ which is, of course, the strategy of comic writing.”
Another example of the play’s dark humor, according to Bigot, is the gift of stones from the old synagogue that the sisters received. “One can say that it’s a nice present,” the director said, “but to receive a present of old stones from the synagogue that was destroyed by the Nazis is, for me, to kill them twice. There is something awful about this, but also something comical.”
As for what the director hopes will emerge from the play, Bigot said, “I would like everyone in the audience to make a little peace with themselves.”
For his part, Robbins would like audiences to come away with “a full heart.” And Cixous wants audiences to think about racism, which she believes is universal and not limited to any particular nationality.
“It’s everywhere. It’s always there; it’s the curse of humanity, and one has to fight it back all the time, everywhere. And when you think that you have put out the fire in one place, it breaks out in another place. It’s unfortunate. It’s most important to realize that no one is innocent, no one.”
“Oy” Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Thursdays, 7 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 28. $20. Thursdays are pay-what-you-can. (310) 838-4264 or www.theactorsgang.com.