NEW YORK—Written and performed by Matthew Zajac, “The Tailor of Inverness” offers a very personal family mystery wrapped up in a historical conundrum. Even after the mystery is exposed to the cold light of reality, only glimmers of truth are seen, yet sometimes these may have to be enough.
Dogstar Theatre Company presents the one-man show as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters.
Mateusz Zajac was born in Gnilowody, Poland, and was serving in the Polish army when World War II broke out. Captured by the Soviets in the days before the former Soviet Union sided with the Allies, he eventually escaped, joined up with other Poles, got back into the war, and fought in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.
When the war ended, Zajac made his way to Scotland, where one of his brothers was living. There he became a tailor, started a business, met and married a local girl, and raised a family.
However, as the playwright notes—the younger Zajac taking on both the character of his father as well as injecting his own voice and perspective into the story—what’s mentioned above may not be completely true.
For Mateusz may have been conscripted into the German army at one point and later lied about his service record. He also left a wife behind, something he never mentioned to his current family.
The elder Mateusz claims he never went back to Poland because of shifting borders; his hometown was now in the Ukraine and continued unrest was still going on there. But it may also have been that he feared the exposure of his secret and the reprisal because of it.
Starting out as a story of someone who was caught up in the upheaval of World War II and who survived to begin a new life, “The Tailor of Inverness” quickly turns out to be something much deeper.
The play is not only a tale of a son trying to open a door into his father’s past, but also a look at a people forced to fight against their own countrymen because the only other choice for them would have been death.
The elder Zajac notes that when his unit captured German prisoners who turned out to be conscripted Poles, they would simply put them back with the Polish soldiers, rather than turn them in, noting, “They weren’t considered to be traitors. Unless they were in the SS.” This sequence, which occurs early in the story, takes on an added significance later as more of Mateusz’s possible history is revealed.
The play offers an interesting narrative, which changes both direction and perception several times. While the work looks at forced conscription, a practice which continues in many parts of the world today, as well as touches on ethnic clashes due to border disputes, as exemplified by the fighting between Polish and Ukrainian forces, in the end, the play is mainly about two distinct journeys.
In one journey, a father is forced to make choices due to circumstances beyond his control. In the other, the son travels to his father’s hometown and tries to learn more about the man whom he knew far less than he thought he did.
The younger Zajac does a nice job giving life to his father, from his recalling life as a young boy in a Polish winter to his later years in Inverness. At times he speaks with a combination of a Polish accent and a Scottish lilt.
Zajac’s performance is aided by a series of projected old pictures and a series of maps, all detailing his father’s possible journeys.
Clocking in at 80 minutes, the show moves well and is engaging. The dialogue is at times interspersed with some interesting pauses, especially when Mateusz notes that the show is over even as he tries to keep the memories of the things he saw and the horrors he experienced from overwhelming him.
At the same time, some things may not need to be brought to light. For as Mateusz proclaims toward the play’s end, “I am from here, I speak the language of here,” which could be interpreted as either an admission he’s come to terms with the past or that it’s simply something over and done with.
‘The Tailor of Inverness’
59 E. 59th St.
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or 59e59.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: May 3
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.