A playwright’s powerful late start

Ira Fuchs takes a break from producing his first play. Photo: Michelle Naim
Written when he was 67, Ira Fuchs’ VILNA is a disturbing take on the killing pits of the Holocaust
By Michelle Naim

Ira Fuchs always knew he would be a playwright, but he didn’t produce his first play until the age of 67. How’s that for it’s never too late? The playwright worked as a computer technology entrepreneur for over 47 years, even writing several books for Microsoft, but was an English major in college. “It was the best thing I ever did,” said Fuchs. “It teaches you how to think.”

His play VILNA, which hit one of the oldest Off-Broadway theaters at the Theater at St. Clements, is about the heroic tale of two boys who saved the lives of many. His two main characters, Sean Hudock, who plays Motke Zeidel, and Seamus Mulcahy, who plays Yudi Farber, were in the middle of practicing the scene when they formally meet at a summer camp at the age of eleven. Sean Hudock’s character, Motke, throws a ball at Yudi’s feet and this begins their life-long friendship.

Fuchs, adorned in a playwright’s scarf, said he began to officially take his creative career to the next level in 2016 when he enrolled in a six-week course in Hollins University’s drama program in Virginia and took twelve credits over the course of a six-week summer semester.

The Off-Broadway play, which shows for five weeks, is a rollercoaster of events. Fuchs says he got an assignment in a course called “First Drafts” to write a play about an article in the newspapers. That’s how VILNA was born.

The article was about the discovery and corroboration of the Ponar killing pits outside of Nazi-occupied Vilna (now Vilnius in Lithuania), where Jews were first moved into a ghetto and then to the Ponar forest. Fuchs says 70,000 people were shot and then dumped into the pits in the forest.

“It picked me.” Fuchs said of the subject. “I didn’t pick it. You think you have free-will sometimes and it’s not always the case. I could not walk away from that.” He said the city of Vilna captivated him: “There has never been any place in the history of the diaspora, before, or after, where you had that demographic density of Jews.” And when the Nazis forced the Jews into a ghetto, he said the people did not lose their humanity and dignity. “[There was] a symphony orchestra, two theaters, cabaret, schools, sporting events.” The bloodshed, emotional tumult, shooting and cold-blooded murders on the stage perfectly captured the horrific acts of the Nazis. There is a particularly disturbing scene when a Nazi officer brutally forces another Nazi, of lower rank than himself, to kiss his behind. In another gut-wrenching scene, three characters stand in the center of the stage and look deeply into the eyes of audience members. Each of them talks over the other, describing the killings they have witnessed in the forest. Fuchs was right when he said he wanted the play to feel like “an emotional sucker-punch.”

Fuchs does not have any relatives who were survivors of the mass genocide of Jews, disabled peoples, gypsies and others, but he said he has met many survivors of the atrocity. Never having been to Poland, the death camps, or even Vilna, now home to approximately 2,000 Jews, he believes the best proxy to Holocaust education is the theater: “The immediacy, the in-your-face. The drama. That’s why I write plays.” He says he’s not crazy about the idea of going there: “There’s virtually nothing there except for a cosmopolitan place and it’s like ‘why do I want to go there.’ My Vilna is in my head.”

Already abstracted and removed from the Holocaust for three generations, and pointing out that most young people have never met a survivor of the camps with a tattoo, Fuchs said, “I’m not a religious Jew, I’m not even observant, but it was the behavior of these people and way they maintained their humanity and their dignity, over the most continuous and arduous persecution and murder — and how they transcended that — is what makes me feel like a Jew.”

Fuchs says he hopes this will be his last time producing a play on his own. He would like to write a comedy, but hopes that the play will get picked up. “I need to write something light and bright,” he said. “This is not that.”

Currently, the play is filling about 70-80 seats per show and there is one Sunday showing which is sold out. The last performance is Sunday, April 14th. Tickets can be purchased through a link on the play’s website: vilna-the-play.org or at the box office.