Jesus walks in a whimsical comedy of faith, but nuance gets left behind.
Sylvia Stein has found Jesus, and she’s not letting him go. In the months following September 11, Sylvia—formerly a non-practicing Jew—has become a fervent evangelical convert, her new faith manifesting as her own personal Jesus, with whom she converses throughout the day, to the consternation of her goth, atheist teen daughter, Rachel. But Rachel has her own imagined confidant: Physicist Stephen Hawking appears to her when she gets high while reading A Brief History of Time.
Laufer is interested in the ways we cope with stress and uncertainty after catastrophe. Sylvia’s husband, Arthur, was an executive at a firm in the World Trade Center, and missed the fate of his employees by fluke. He’s responded by shutting down, sleeping all day and unable to muster the confidence to venture to the grocery store. Sylvia throws herself into evangelizing about the coming apocalypse, and frets that Rachel will be left behind. Nelson, an oddball, unwaveringly optimistic neighbor boy whose daily attire is a bedazzled Elvis jumpsuit, becomes Rachel’s ardent suitor and the family’s unlikely savior.
I found Laufer’s 2007 comedy off-puttingly glib in its 2009 outing at Evanston’s Next Theatre, and while this new incarnation—the inaugural production of the well-appointed, admirably ambitious new Windy City Playhouse—bests the previous staging, it's not enough to change my perception of the piece. The performances here are for the most part more grounded, with empathetic work by Tina Gluschenko and Keith Kupferer as Sylvia and Arthur; Stephen Cefalu Jr. impressively manages to shift Nelson from annoying contrivance to semi-believable charmer.
But Henry Godinez’s staging, spread across a vast expanse of stage in Windy City’s current traverse configuration, diffuses the action, leaving Laufer’s cartoonish characterizations all too exposed. Though Steven Strafford amuses in his dual turns as Jesus and Hawking, the whimsical device underlines Laufer’s broad-strokes approach to faith. As a new entrant to Chicago’s theater scene, Windy City Playhouse shows great promise, but End Days is less than rapturous.
Windy City Playhouse. By Deborah Zoe Laufer. Directed by Henry Godinez. With Tina Gluschenko, Keith Kupferer, Sari Sanchez, Stephen Cefalu Jr., Steven Strafford. Running time: 2hrs 15mins; one intermission.