Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of The Great Work
To develop the play, Ross and director Chantal Pavageaux met with a wide spectrum of the Twin Cities' Jewish community, of varied ages and degrees of religious observance. A total of eighteen local partnerssynagogues, Jewish day schools, arts organizations, senior homes, community centers and the University of Minnesota Hillelare credited with a role in this process. Through activities such as one on one interviews, focus groups, and arts experiences, a play was drafted. This, however, is not a biblical drama. It does not stage the story of Abraham straight from Genesis, but takes themes and values identified through the community work and places those in a contemporary context to which today's audiences can identify.
The result is an hour-long, one-actor play in which Ross plays Abe Shepard, who was born Avram Shemson but changed his name to be more "American." Abe is a businessman who is up to his eyeballs in debt and stress. His father Terry (the biblical Abraham's father was Terah) has just died, and Abe intends to sell his father's storage business and use the cash to get out from under his obligations, which include a second mortgage, maintaining a high standard of living for his wife Sarah and their son Izzy, and keeping his former mistress Hannah at bay. Hannah and Abe also have a son, and Hannah rails at Abe for the second-rate treatment he gives to their son. For readers unfamiliar with the original, Abraham was married to Sarah, who gave birth to Isaac, and Abraham had a mistress named Hagar, who gave birth to a son, Ishmael, whom Abraham cast out of his home.
Abe has a buyer for the property waiting in his office, but he can't locate the deed amid the utter chaos of Terry's office. In his search, Abe stumbles upon a cassette recording his father had made directing him to the deed's location by way of a variety of objects that represent not only his life, but the lives of others who came before him. Abe races through this scavenger hunt, desperately seeking the deed before he loses the buyer. As things spiral out of control for Abe, he learns the true nature of his father's storage business and the value of what he protected in his files and vaults for these many years; and Abe comes to understand how he must live his life.
The Abraham Play is fascinating in concept, but could use some tightening up as the story unspools. The parallel between Abe Shemson and the biblical Abraham (a descendent of Shem) is obvious. Yet the legacy his father nurtured and passes on to Abe runs from the beginning of Jewish life to Abe's own emergence into manhood, represented by his bar mitzvah certificate. This herald call to value, preserve, and transmit one's heritage seems to become the dominant theme, and the particular focus on Abraham's place, at least as portrayed in Genesis, fades into the background. I also wonder why the Akedah, the portion of Abraham's story that is perhaps best known, when he is commanded to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac as a show of devotion to God, is not worked into the play in some manner. It seems unlikely that this never emerged through the community input process.
However, the piece has sharp dialog, with Abe's one-sided conversations ringing true. Certainly there is no question that Abraham is now in a very contemporary mien, complete with persistent calls through his Bluetooth. Moreover, Jon Adam Ross is terrific in the part, ratcheting up his degree of anxiety and ruthlessness until he can take no more, then very convincingly breaking through to see the light beyond the nerve-wracking tunnel in which he's been trapped.
Zach Berkman's sound design provides some great percussive effects to mark the passing of time, and production designer Zachary Humes created an unbelievably riotous office strewn with boxes, file folders, paper, and bric-a-brac. Chantal Pavageaux has directed the show briskly, packing lots of action and dialogue into an hour. She maintains a focus on Abe's journey, which works well to serve the play as written, though, again, as Abe becomes a link in the continuation of an essential chain, we lose sight of what is uniquely transformative about him.
It is worth noting that, as he is written and portrayed, Abe is not a particularly nice person. He is presented as devious, self-serving, and morally aloof. The play's end presents the understanding that he has experienced redemption, though we don't really see how that takes shape in forthcoming actions.
The Abraham Play has audience participation, as files describing clues are passed out before the show, and Abe asks the lucky persons to read from their folders at the appropriate time. This felt like a nod to the process of community engagement used to develop the play, though by breaking the fourth wall it also reduced the sense of claustrophobic panic drawing in around Abe. The trade is between audience engagement and dramatic tension. I found Abe's descent to be compelling enough to keep me engaged, and might have gone with maintaining the dramatic tension over audience participation.
In the end, I appreciated The Abraham Play as a one-act character piece that effectively shows a man squeezed to the breaking point by a trap of his own making. Though the play's set-up cleverly parallels Genesis, I found it less effective in offering insights into Abraham's role in the biblical saga, or how it is he emerged as a patriarchal figure in Jewish history.
The next play in The In[heir]itance Project will be The Rebecca Play in Charleston, South Carolina. After that will be The Jacob Play in Austin, Texas, The Rachel and Leah Play in Seattle, and The Sarah Play in Kansas City. It will be interesting to hear how the process evolves, and how the successive plays take shape. With the insights that are bound to emerge through the course of the project, an opportunity to revisit and strengthen The Abraham Play could be a very worthwhile pursuit.
The Abraham Play was produced by The In[heir]itance Project. Nine performances were presented from December 10 to December 20, 2015, alternating between Bedlam Theatre, 213 East 4th Street, Saint Paul and Architectural Antiques, 1330 Quincy Street NE, Minneapolis. For more information about The Abraham Play and future work, visit www.inheiritance.org.
Written by: Jon Adam Ross; Director: Chantal Pavageaux; Production Design: Zachary Humes; Art Design: Mischa Kegan; Additional Sound Design: Zach Berkman; Production Manager: Ariel Warmflash; Stage Managers: Shira and Briana Lavintman; Twin Cities Project Coordinator: Robyn Awend
Cast: Jon Adam Ross (Abe Shepard), John Rengstorff (voiceover - Terry Shemson)