Apostasy, a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review

By Simon Saltzman

There are no agnostics in a cancer ward.--- Rachel Gold Apostasy: 1. The renunciation of faith. 2. Abandonment of previous loyalty. --- Webster's Dictionary:

Susan G. Bob and Evander Duck, Jr. in Apostasy
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Sheila Gold (Susan G. Bob) is a Jewish patient with terminal cancer living in a hospice. The closest she has come to her faith in her lifetime is preparing a brisket of beef at Passover. This presumably makes her a prime candidate for apostasy, the theme of an absorbing if slightly far-fetched world premiering play by Gino Dilorio, a New York-based playwright who's been 1st place winner place in the BBC's 2005 International Playwriting Competition and a finalist at the O'Neill Center, the Humana Festival and New Dramatists.

When Gold, a self-sufficient independent middle-aged long-divorced woman reaches out for "something," she doesn't turn to her 31 year-old daughter Rachel (Natalie Wilder), who makes daily visits and usually arrives with a fresh supply of pot, declaring "Dis is good shit mon."

Sheila has, in fact, become enraptured with the TV ministry of California-based Dr. Julius Strong (Evander Duck, Jr.), a charismatic African-American Christian Evangelist. Exhausting the alternative cures which her daughter has continually seen fit to put down, Sheila finds that she is eager and receptive to the message that the persuasive evangelist is offering and loses no time in writing to him while also secretively initiating a major change in her will.

Sheila's success as a businesswoman ("I made a bundle selling stuff on line") has resulted in a conflicted relationship with Rachel who chose not to go into her mother's thriving business, but has instead devoted her life and her time to planned parenthood and working at a women's health clinic where she is now a manager.

Although disappointed in her daughter's choices, Sheila continues to urge Rachel to find a man through the Jewish singles web site service nembership in which she has given her as a gift. This subject takes a back seat when Sheila announces, "I'm thinking of converting to…Christianity. I'm serious. People who are dying need something." In a brochure sent from "The Strong Hour," Rachel notices a request for donations and makes it clear that she feels betrayed by her mother. Sheila counters this with "Well, I'm dying. And people who have faith die differently than people who don't have faith. I know it. I've seen it. And I don't want to be like them. So do me a favor, don't feel betrayed"

Rachel discovers that the evangelist has made a personal visit to see Sheila in her room at the hospice (cleanly and functionally designed by Carrie Mossman) and has stayed the night. Have Sheila's letter and its promise of a hefty gift to his ministry prompted Dr. Strong (Evander Duck, Jr.) to do whatever it takes?

You may suspect at this point that you know where playwright Dilorio is leading us and you may be right. However, under SuzAnne Barabas' finely tuned direction, three excellent actors define Dilorio's interestingly complex characters with considerable brio. The plot is a cleverly considered mix of concealed con and overt compassion.

Dilorio's gift for the provocative shows up with Julius' visit, beginning with an exchange of gifts between him and Sheila. Although Sheila is a bit wary of his evangelistic zeal ("You're always in preacher mode".), she is disarmed by his exuberance and warmth, and his ability to make her dance with a joyous abandonment to the strains of "Dancin' in the Street." An embrace leads to a kiss and more, in time for a quick Act 1 curtain. Rachel , appalled by the direction the relationship is taking, proceeds to do what she can to prevent her suddenly rejuvenated mother from being taken in by Julius.

Although the stocky yet spiffy-looking Duck, Jr. has the misfortune to play part of a scene literally bare-ass, his character is otherwise clothed in relentless sincerity and a fully committed mission. At the opening night performance, he got a deserved round of applause for giving an overly dramatic, but highly amusing "testimony" in the form of an improvisation at Sheila's request. Whether he is the scoundrel that Rachel suspects remains an almost moot point in the light of the desperate measures she is prepared to take to get him out of her mother's life.

Wilder has appeared in numerous NJ Rep productions, and she is outstanding as the totally rattled and needy Rachel, who not only finds herself in the role of her mother's protector, but also a probable target of anti-abortion activists. Whether we find Julius' stand on abortion surprising or not, we are more surprised not to see a single member of the hospice staff. Evidently no one checks up to see if anyone died during the night.

Susan Bob, who is best know for originating the role of Dee in Charles Gordone's Pulitzer Prize winning No Place to Be Somebody, gives the play its heart and its heartiness. Reflecting a gullibility that defies logic, and a recklessness that defines irrational behavior, she makes Sheila someone you may find yourself unwittingly rooting for and embracing. To her credit, she dispenses poignancy with a vibrancy that well serves this strangely unsettling but intriguing play.

Although this is not a musical, director Barabas has brilliantly selected recorded songs that deliciously punctuate the scenes and are worth mentioning -- "Stormy Weather," sung by Etta James, "People Get Ready," sung by The Blind Boys of Alabama, "I'm Still Her"e, sung by Tom Waits," Sunday Morning,",," Trust in Me" and "At Last," by Etta James; and "It will Be Me," sung for the curtain call by Kristin Chenoweth.

By Gino Dilorio
Directed by SuzAnne Barabas
Cast: Natalie Wilder, Susan G. Bob, Evander Duck, Jr.
Set Design: Carrie Mossman
Costume Design: Patricia E. Doherty
Lighting Design: Jill Nagle
Sound Design: Merek Royce Press
New Jersey Repertory Company, at the Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey, 07740
From July 13 through August 13 (Opening night July15)
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission
Regular show times are Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM selected Saturday at 4 PM and Sundays at 2:00 PM.
There is free on-site parking and easy access from NJ Transit; for additional information call 732 - 229 - 3166 or email:
Tickets: $30. Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on July 15 opening night performance

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