Tuesday, July 11, 2017

If Not Quite All-Powerful, Enjoyably Droll 'God of Isaac' Hits Quite Close to Home -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The God of Isaac
by James Sherman
directed by Dennis Začek
Grippo Stage Company
at Piven Theatre, Evanston, IL
Thru August 27

The God of Isaac--which premiered in 1985 at Victory Gardens--is a play containing plenty with which I can identify or readily relate.

A Chicago-area man named Isaac (originally played by playwright James Sherman and now by his son T. Isaac Sherman, both under the direction of Dennis Začek) is Jewish by birth, heritage, Hebrew school, Bar Mitzvah and certain traditions, but never strict observance. 

Non-practicing in adulthood, with a shiksa wife, he is compelled by horribly anti-Semitic actions--specifically the planned neo-Nazi marches in my hometown of Skokie in 1977-78--to seek a better understanding and embrace of Judaism.

Despite underlying references to the Holocaust, the 6 million Jews killed and Skokie's large community of survivors aghast at again having to see swastika-adorned uniforms in their midst--as portrayed in the 1981 made-for-TV movie, Skokie, the marches never took place within the village--The God of Issac is by-and-large a comedy.

Photo credit on all: Evan Hanover
The younger Sherman is quite good as he frequently breaks the 4th wall and engages in a good bit of "meta" dialogue with the audience and one member in particular.

References to the (now long-gone) Skokie delicatessen Sam 'N Hy's, the desirability of kosher salami--vs. the Oscar Mayer variety, even for those who don't keep kosher--and mothers who save piles of grocery bags to use as garbage bags clearly hit close to home. (Literally, in fact, as the Grippo Stage Company production is being staged in Evanston, just 15 minutes from both my current and childhood Skokie residences.)

I was in Hebrew school when Frank Collin enlisted the ACLU to fight for neo-Nazis' constitutional right to march near Skokie's Village Hall, so a bit younger than Isaac in the play, but I certainly remember the rancor.

And while I likewise haven't opted to attend synagogue with any regularity since my Bar Mitzvah at age 13, beyond a relatively inert sense of my religion tied to lox & bagels, holiday dinners and respect for my forebearers, I most ardently "feel Jewish" in solidarity against anti-Semitism, oppression, persecution, hate, stereotyping, ignorance, etc.

Hence, a Jean-Paul Sartre quote that Isaac hears from a rabbi he seeks out--"A Jew is anyone who can one day be called by his neighbor a dirty Jew"--also resonated strongly with me.

Along with the likable T. Issac Sherman--his character's full name is Isaac Adams, but as this is never enunciated in the play it gets a tad confusing when his wife Shelly (an excellent Annabel Steven) repeatedly seems to call him Adam rather than Isaac--what works best in The God of Issac is the agile and often LOL funny rotating of Brian Rabinowitz and Charles Schoenherr through characterizations of Hasidic Jews, Huckleberry Finn, Marlon Brando, Henry Higgins and others (best that I leave specific details for you to encounter).

Anita Silvert as Isaac's mother and Jolie Lepselter as his friend Chava also do fine work.

Even for those without ready points of reference--and the show's program provides a helpful glossary of Yiddish and other non-English terms--The God of Isaac is deft enough to serve as a night of enjoyably intimate theater, within the Piven Theatre space in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, just steps from Noyes "L" station.

But despite several pleasurable moments, a few inspired ones, a nice, rather unique tonality and strong performances, the 2-act, 2-hour piece ultimately feels more like a cute play than a ravishing one.

While audience members of any cultural or religious heritage should easily find personalized parallels with Isaac's exploration of being Jewish--within a community where "none of the Jews live like other Jews"--my sense is that this show will likely appeal considerably more so to "members of the tribe."

And while I appreciate the Shermans'--both writer James, who was in attendance Monday night, and his son onstage--ability to make The God of Issac a thoughtful yet lighthearted affair, I feel correlation with the planned Skokie marches could've been more tightly drawn.

Issac notes certain dates on which Collin or court decisions made news, and speaks with a Holocaust survivor in his quest for better understanding. But while a deep dive into the hate speech vs. freedom of speech divide clearly isn't the focus here, Isaac's identity questions might have connected more potently to the genocidal devastation wrought on Jews, including many--like him--much more assimilated into their country of residence than overtly religious.

As noted above, I was a bit narratively confused by the names Isaac and Adam(s) being used interchangeably for the same character, who added to the sense of dichotomy by--always in character, to a degree--speaking to the audience about the play he was starring within.

This conceit was generally clever and pulled off well, but in a play reflecting on tolerance, individualism, respect, learning, etc., Isaac seems to treat his non-Jewish wife Shelly with an odd whiff of superiority and condescension.

He berates her for a few uncouth comments--such as "Jew him down"--without seeming to consider that she is just a much a product of her upbringing as he is of his.

And though at one point he suggests that Shelly convert to Judaism, he never once asks about her faith, beliefs, spirituality or how religion may shape her existence, even if--as for him--faith seemingly isn't overt.

I have never been married, and though there is theoretically nothing that would curtail me from wedding someone of a different religion or background, I appreciate that what may not initially seem of great consequence can become complicated as circumstances, awakenings or offspring arise.

As such, I wish this was an aspect the largely appreciable God of Isaac handled a bit more adroitly.

Still, even if imperfect, the play offers more than enough to be well-worth your time (especially if you come across discounts on HotTix, Goldstar or TodayTix).

You needn't be from Skokie or--as referenced in the play--have spent a good amount of your youth at Kroch's & Brentanos in Old Orchard to enjoy some hearty laughs, common touchstones, a bit of introspection and a fair amount of reverence for The God of Issac.

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