BWW Review: THE GOOD BOOK at Berkeley Rep is Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson's Must-See Examination of Faith, Meaning, Science and Rationalism.
O'Hare, himself a comfortable atheist, was alarmed at how religion is was and is currently being used in society. Collaborating with writer/director Lisa Peterson, who knew very little about the bible, the two studied divinity classes to develop the character of Miriam, a woman so strident in her disbelief that she's at war with her students and fellow academics, even isolating herself from her Jordanian husband over her refusal to accept his faith. Annette O'Toole is gut-wrenching in her portrayal of a woman so extreme that she alienates all around her. She's at war with an ingrained thought process that has been accepted for millennium. It's a brave performance wrought with anguish and pain, burdened with the task of shouting her truth in the wilderness.
Connor, played with absolute adorableness by Keith Nobbs, is blissfully unaware of his being gay. He's bought into his Christianity and earnestly strives for religious 'goodness'. Closeted in his room, he makes drapes for a tabernacle and has hilarious conversations with bible characters (a very gay King James, King Solomon, St. Paul). Attempting to be 'normal' cannot work for Connor who will come face to face with his own condemnation by the very book he so cherishes. Can here be a reconciliation between Connors' identity and his love for the Church?
O'Hare and Peterson raise some very heady questions in The Good Book. The first act ends with Connor's attempted suicide and Miriam's car crash, both of their lives' dangling on the precipice of events out of their control. Should Miriam destroy faith to uphold science? Is there a place in religion for all people who believe? The second act plays show us Miriam's past, with appearances from her late mother, fellow academics and Bible characters. Connor grows up before our eyes, struggling with his sexuality, his stint in rehab and attempt at finding oneness.
Peterson's direction is stellar, creating a dreamlike surrealism seamlessly with the reality of her two main characters. The ensemble (Elijah Alexander, Lance Gardner, Denmo Ibrahim, Shannon Tyo and Wayne Wilcox) have a field day playing early Assyrian migrants, bible characters and assorted family members. There's plenty of irreverent humor; ancient scrolls are lost when a traveler tosses them for some figs, the fey King James dispels cockeyed wisdom, a scrambled Skype call between Miriam and her husband and Keith Nobb's fine performance as the clueless Connor. The Good Book (bible) is a third protagonist here as both Miriam and Connor test its meaning. The authorship is challenged intelligently, there's a fire breathing atheist rant that got some in the audience to cheer, and a questioning of meaning without belief.
Lydia Tanji adds some excellent Costume Design and the set is illuminated beautifully with ancient scrolls texts by Lighting/Projection designer Alexander V. Nichols. The Good Book examines the bible as a living, breathing document and must change with the evolving times. Connor does reconcile his faith with his sexuality while Miriam sticks to her guns. When their lives converge at the scene of Miriam's car crash, he offers her comfort in prayer. Of course she cannot accept, but there is a moment of tenderness and serenity.
The Good Book continues through June 9th, 2019 at Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. Tickets available at www. berkeleyrep.org or by calling (510) 647-2949.
Photos by Kevin Berne