‘The Good Book’ at Court: Rethinking the Bible as the work of men, and struggling to see light
Review: “The Good Book” by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, world premiere at Court Theatre through April 19. ★★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
It ain’t necessarily so, says Miriam with scholarly conviction and a defiant flourish of the Good Book.
The Bible, she says flatly, is not the word of God. It’s the work of human authors over many generations: imperfect men, men trying to write down events way after the fact, sometimes revising history to suit their purpose, sometimes muddling oral tradition with mere legend. The parting of the Red Sea? Forget it, says Miriam. Didn’t happen.
How the Bible might have been pieced together and how its powerful text touches the lives of two contemporary souls – this scholar and a devout teenage boy struggling with his sexual awakening – is the stuff of “The Good Book,” a brilliantly funny and provocative new play by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson now in its world premiere run at Court Theatre.
Miriam (played with expansive wit and sardonic doubt by Hollis Resnik) is a college professor who knows the Bible inside out. In the big cultural picture, she respects its place at the forefront of texts that have influenced belief and ethics. But she rejects categorically, even contemptuously, the idea of its divine provenance. Indeed, she has long since ceased believing in God.
In another part of the forest, so to speak, we find 15-year-old Connor (the infectiously charming and obsessive Alex Weisman), a Roman Catholic who loves God, devours the Bible daily and sees himself serving the Church one day. Connor is also a sort of junior version of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp, happiest in the hermitage that is his bedroom and constantly detailing the phenomena of his life on audio tape. His diary of tapes fills a large drawer.
Connor is slowly coming round to the realization that he is gay, which epiphany brings him to serious grief with his churchly confessor. Even as we watch Connor make that ungainly climb to sexual awareness, and the disconcerting realization that he is different in that area as in others, we also track Miriam’s lectures on the evolution of the Bible. We actually watch its, um, genesis enacted in a series of skits often worthy of Saturday Night Live.
Assorted sandaled characters in robes and skullcaps, at different points in ancient history, wrangle over the Bible’s accumulating books in serious but usually compromised efforts to codify tribal law, inscribe genealogy or correctly set down the work of those reporters who chronicled the life, work and death of Jesus.
In a weave of choreographic elegance, Miriam’s lectures, Connor’s vicissitudes and the scriptural work of the ancients merge and separate and merge again like the endlessly rolling boil that is human history. The perfect logic of this energizing interaction is a credit to author Lisa Peterson in her alter persona as director, and to the spare, abstract and adaptable set design of Rachel Hauck. (A bow might be made here as well to costume designer Linda Roethke and lighting designer Keith Parham.)
Amusing and even plausible though “The Good Book” may be as a tale about the formation of the Bible, ultimately it is the story of a woman who has lost her spiritual connection to both God and the world, her life. Her lover (one of several roles smartly turned by Kareem Bandealy) tells her as much: Happiness has slipped from her grasp. She has turned inward, grown cynical, shut out the light.
Miriam admits her frustration at not finding that special student in her current classes. Instead, she’s butting heads with a young woman (Emjoy Gavino, another delight in multiple roles) who professes absolute faith and insists that the Bible must be taken literally as the word of God. One shouting match between them in class ends only with Miriam’s dyspeptic declaration: “I know more than you do.”
The old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes comes to a test when Miriam finds herself pressed to her mortal limit. An out-of-body experience reunites her with her deceased mother (the all-around marvelous Jacqueline Williams). You can see what’s coming from a mile away, though that’s assuming pretty sharp eyesight.
This splendid production also boasts two other versatile actors in a range of key roles. Allen Gilmore is especially memorable as the solicitous confessor whose munificence ends where Connor’s gay revelation begins. And Erik Hellman gets the coolest costume — when he materializes as Connor’s personal hero, the very Scotsman responsible for the lad’s beloved King James Bible.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Preview of Court Theatre’s complete 2014-15 season: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
Tags: Alex Weisman, Allen Gilmore, Court Theatre, Denis O'Hare, Emjoy Gavino, Erik Hellman, Hollis Resnik, Jacqueline Williams, Kareem Bandealy, Keith Parham, Linda Roethke, Lisa Peterson, Rachel Hauck