Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 30, 2023

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Co, "The Happiest Man on Earth"

Barrington Stage Co., Pittsfield, MA 
through June 17, 2023
by Jarice Hanson
Photo by Daniel Rader
The title of this one-man play is both appropriate and ironic. This is a true story, based on the memoir of Eddie Jaku, a Holocaust survivor who considered himself first a German, and second, a Jew. As a young man, Eddie was sent away to school with a new identity, but upon returning home, he was seized by Nazis and sent first to Buchenwald, and later to Auschwitz. Through his eyes, we see the horrors of Hitler’s extermination plan as well as the compassion that only a person like Eddie could find, in the hell he endured for so many years.
The wonderful Kenneth Tigar, a veteran of stage, screen, and television, brings Eddie to his audience by portraying his humility, dignity, and intelligence. Tigar’s voice is like velvet, but the power he projects vocally and physically in this 80-minute tour de force is breathtaking. When he delivers the line; “Without friendship we are lost,” he communicates myriad layers of what this means to his audience, whom he calls “my new friends.” His manner is so unassuming, he skillfully draws us in to a story that illuminates humanity set against the most inhumane behavior.
The original memoir has been adapted for the stage in this World Premier by Mark St. Germain who mines Jaku’s memoire for the universal truths that make this a hopeful play, rather than dwelling on sorrow and shock. Director Ron Lagomarsino brilliantly uses the few set pieces that change function according to the time and place of the action and capitalizes on Tigar’s extraordinary energy to suggest places that are best left to the imagination.  
The real Eddie, born in Germany in 1920, left Europe after the war for Australia, where he lived until he passed peacefully in 2021 at the age of 101. As our fictional Eddie says, he wrote his memoire to honor those who couldn’t tell their own stories. He reminds us that no matter how bad things may get, “happiness is in your hands”.
This is a deeply moving, beautiful story, told by a writer, director, and actor who understand the power of theatre to reach their audience and give them hope. The outburst of applause and an immediate standing ovation showed that these creative professionals know how to touch the compassionate bond in each of us. This production is a gift to audiences, and serves as a reminder  that no matter what each day brings, life is precious—as long as we take the time to see the things in life that really matter.