Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Good Book
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Jeanie's reviews of This Random World and Born Yesterday and Patrick's reviews of Jazz and 110 in the Shade

Keith Nobbs (foreground); Wayne Wilcox,
and Annette O'Toole

Photo by Alessandro Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
There's a fine line between ambition and hubris. Setting a goal to visit all seven continents? That's ambition. Attempting to reach the South Pole wearing khakis, a windbreaker, and a beat-up pair of Chuck Taylors? Hubris. Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson, the authors of The Good Book, now running at Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Peet's Theatre, balance on that fine line with undeniable grace—and a healthy dollop of comic flair. After all, attempting to present a history of the world's best-selling book and humanity's complicated, highly fraught relationship to it over the course of a single theatrical performance (even one that stretches to nearly three hours) could be interpreted as hubris of the highest order. Yet somehow, O'Hare and Peterson manage to maintain our attention and engage our intellects as the evening ranges across a broad landscape of history, scholarship, culture, belief, relationships and self-discovery—that's just in act one.

In keeping with the complicated nature of our culture's relationship to the Bible (and with each other about the Bible), the show opens with the most fitting of questions: "Where do we begin?" This is stated by Miriam, a biblical name with both ironic and unironic overtones, as the character is an atheist and one of the world's foremost biblical scholars. Miriam is played by Annette O'Toole in a performance that somehow manages to range just as broadly as the play itself, moving from confidence to vulnerability to resolve to anger to confusion to betrayal, with stunning power and commitment.

Miriam sits at the center of The Good Book's universe, but that universe is also populated by a cast of five other actors who play a wide array of roles—from pre-literate sheepherders sharing creation stories to King James (as in the King James Version), played here with an hysterical Shrek-like Scottish accent by Wayne Wilcox, to a New Yorker writer assigned to profile Miriam, and several others.

Though Miriam sits at the center of The Good Book, Connor (Keith Nobbs) may be its heart. We see Connor at various stages of his life: as a young boy dreaming of a life in the priesthood to a teenager struggling with his sexuality to a young man who feels betrayed by the Roman Catholic Church yet refuses to turn his back on God. His story never truly intertwines with Marian's arc, but their struggles occupy parallel tracks that each illuminate the other in surprising and sometimes moving ways. When these parallel paths finally intersect, at the play's touching denouement, it's a gorgeous moment of theatre.

Through Connor's struggles with his faith and his burgeoning sexual identity, and Miriam's battles with academia, bored and uncurious students, and a long-distance relationship (the biggest laughs of the night come during a garbled Skype conversation) with Qasim (Elijah Alexander) that turns fraught, we are also treated to a fascinating insight into current knowledge of how the Bible came to be—and how it could have become something else entirely. We see the Bible first as a set of oral stories and history (including a lovely moment when a sheepherder sends his son off to a new life, but first quizzes him on the names of all patriarchal lineage), then scrolls and papyri that were collected, lost, found, organized, translated, re-translated and re-re-translated—with all the opportunities for human error and bias to creep in. Connor's use of a tape recorder to document the events of his young life and to create stories is a marvelous mirroring of the creation of the Bible itself.

The staging of The Good Book is as messy and magnificent as its inspiration. The space (designed by Rachel Hauck, with lighting and projections by Alexander V. Nichols) is set with the feel of a church multi-purpose room: an upright piano upstage center and an array of folding tables and chairs, many of which are knocked askew, littering the stage. Co-writer Lisa Peterson also directs the show, and accomplishes this task with great skill, keeping the action moving along briskly and making maximum use of every inch of the performance space.

There is a moment near the end of act one where Miriam, referring to the many disparate scrolls and writings that ultimately composed the Bible, says "If they didn't weave this into something powerful, they would cease to exist." O'Hare and Peterson have likewise assembled disparate elements and woven them into something undeniably powerful. I have refrained from cataloguing many of the insightful and hysterical moments The Good Book contains that make it such a puissant piece of theatre—but you can experience them all by simply getting yourself to Peet's Theatre by June 9, something I enthusiastically recommend.

The Good Book, through June 9, 2019, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Peet's Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Additional matinees have been scheduled Thursday, May 9 and Thursday, May 30 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $57-$97, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. Tickets available online at, or by calling the box office at (510) 647-2949.