Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Rich, Multi-Layered Apostasy Entertains and Enlightens in Long Branch World Premiere
Also see Bob's review of Dark Part of the Forest
The entire action of the play occurs over a period of a few days in a hospice in a major Northeast city. Sheila Gold, who appears to be in her late fifties, is a terminal cancer patient. Dutifully visiting with her is her single thirty-one year old daughter, Rachel. Rachel, who had refused to continue her mother's very successful on-line retail dress business, is a social worker who works for Planned Parenthood at an abortion clinic. This has caused her name to be published on a website which implicitly incites violence against those involved in such activities. She has brought a stash of marijuana for Sheila to smoke for medicinal purposes. However, their relationship remains quite testy.
Rachel discovers some literature from a West Coast television ministry, the Heritage Church of the Living Christ, tucked away in a drawer. Sheila explains to Rachel that she is seriously considering converting. (Rachel banters, " ... and you made me give up my boy friend, Tony Giamarco ... .Does this mean no brisket on Passover?") Sheila describes the comfort that she has drawn from the television ministry of charismatic black Baptist minister, Dr. Julius Strong. Rachel notes that the literature is a solicitation for money. She expresses her feeling of being betrayed by her mother. Sheila responds, "We never talk about dying. People with faith die differently than those without ... Don't feel betrayed. It's not about you, it's about me." After Rachel leaves, Sheila calls her lawyer "about changes in paperwork." Dr. Julius Strong enters her hospice room. End of Scene One.
This set-up is provocative. The dialogue is sharp and engrossing. Each of the three protagonists is fully dimensional and complex. There may be villainy afoot here (and from more than one source), but it is neither simple nor truly evil. And Dilorio's story is so lively, engrossing and thought provoking that viewers never have the opportunity to become depressed by Rachel's terminal situation.
Yes, Dr. Strong has traveled coast to coast in order to secure Sheila's promised largess for his economically troubled ministry. And yes, he will sexually seduce her (or, it may well be said, allow her to seduce him) in an attempt to insure her fealty to him, but he is also caring and sensitive to her needs and prepared to offer her value for her money. Yes, Rachel is more concerned about her own needs than those of her mother. And, yes, she will use chicanery to try to retain control over her mother, but she does care about her, and cementing a strong and loving bond with her is important to Rachel.
Under the swiftly paced and incisive directorial hand of SuzAnne Barabas, each cast member uncannily fully embodies and fleshes out his/her role. Susan G. Bob as Sheila convincingly runs the full gamut of emotions in an aggressive, nervous yet self confident, style. While Sheila's decision to embrace a flashy television minister may cause one to question her state of mind, Ms. Bob makes it clear that Sheila still has her wits about her and knows how to get what she wants. And what she really wants is substantially more corporeal than the Holy Ghost.
Evander Duck, Jr. fires on all cylinders as the studiously charismatic Dr. Strong. Duck seems born to the calling of a glib and smooth soul stirrer. However, after Sheila tells him that "your letters made you sound smarter than that," Duck, smooth as silk, clicks right into place the intelligence to display (a likely insincere) sensitivity.
Natalie Wilder captures the openness and affinity for counter culture of many young people in her portrayal of Rachel. However, as the stakes become higher for Rachel, Wilder brings on a steeliness which indicates that she may end up being her mother's daughter after all. Ultimately, Wilder nicely conveys a chink in her new found armor.
Credit for these nuances in the performances must be shared with author Gino Dilorio. They may be beautifully interpreted by director Barabas and her superlative cast, but the lines supporting them are firmly implanted in Dilorio's text. Although having the television minister drop in on and sleep with Sheila may intuitively feel too theatrical to be true, I'm certain that, when substantial money is at stake, such visits are not uncommon. The issues concerning treatment of the dying and the obligations which they and their loved ones have to one another are never raised statically as such, but rise organically from events. Additionally, Dilorio displays the ability to sustain an extended scene over the course of which the relationship of the characters evolves as they interact at length and reveal more and more of themselves. This is a virtue to be cherished and encouraged.
The detailed and realistic set by Carrie Mossman augmented bright and realistically flat lighting by Jill Nagle heighten the sense of reality. Patricia E. Doherty's apt, and, in the case of Dr. Strong, flamboyant costumes complete the excellent design work.
We are told that Dr. Julius Strong's television ministry show is called "The Strong Hour." The good news is that with its production of Apostasy, New Jersey Rep is giving its audiences a couple of hours of strong and thoughtful entertainment.
Apostasy continues performances (Thurs. Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m. / Selected Sat. 4 p.m.) through August 13 at the New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ 07740. Box Office: 732-229-3166 / online: www.njrep.org
Apostasy by Gino Dilorio; directed by SuzAnne Barabas
Photo: SuzAnne Barabas