Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s new script rethinks Scripture.
In their new premiere at Court Theatre, the co-authors of An Iliad take on no less than the Bible—not the stories it contains, but how they were compiled. O’Hare and Peterson present two parallel tales of Biblical scholars: Miriam (Hollis Resnik), a university lecturer in 2012, thinks she’s coolly objective in her treatment of the text as merely that, but is unnerved by a combative Christian undergrad who challenges her authority. Connor (Alex Weisman), a 15-year-old in 1975, is more of an obsessive amateur scholar, poring over chapter and verse while attempting to reconcile his desire to become a priest with his growing attraction to other boys.
Interweaved with Miriam and Connor’s stories are cheeky depictions of the Bible’s evolution over the centuries, emphasizing the fallibility, politics, occasional impure motivations and sometimes sheer arbitrariness of those priests, church heads, translators and scribes who shaped the canon. In The Good Book’s second act, Connor and Miriam find themselves inserted, separately, into these fantasias, each with their faith, or lack thereof, facing sudden crises.
The provenance of the Bible, the most influential text in Western literature by most measures, is undeniably a topic of fascination for anyone willing to read it as more complex than simply the Word of God. But it’s unclear who Peterson and O’Hare think their audience is. The writers approach questions of authorship and lost texts with a kind of assumption of novelty, as if they expect we’ve never considered them before. And yet they check off lost concepts like God’s wife, Asherah, and other references to apocryphal texts so glancingly that only those of us who have considered these questions could keep up.
Peterson’s staging is handsome and clean, even if it could stand to lose half an hour or so. Resnik and Weisman both give compelling performances, though the dramaturgical question of why their stories are paired here remains an open one. Miriam’s arc as the nonbeliever in the relative present day is all too familiar, while the most interesting parts of Connor’s journey—namely how he got to be the uptight altar boy we first see, since his parents are presented as not particularly devout, and how he eventually makes peace between his faith and his sexuality, as we see in the final scene—all take place offstage. We may not need all the begats, but The Good Book needs to give its focal characters a little more history.
Court Theatre. By Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson. Directed by Peterson. With Hollis Resnik, Alex Weisman, Allen Gilmore, Erik Hellman, Kareem Bandealy, Jacqueline Williams, Emjoy Gavino. Running time: 2hrs 55mins; one intermission.