Theater review: Playing with ideas on religion

By Graydon Royce for Star Tribune April 20, 2011

Once playwrights Richard Krevolin and Irwin Kula clear their throats, they have some trenchant things to say about race, religion and human kindness in "The Gospel According to Jerry."  The two-actor piece had its world premiere last weekend at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, with actors Greta Oglesby and Ryan Lindberg providing a spirited and engaging portrait.

Lindberg plays Jerry, a rabbi who exhorts his congregation during the Mourner's Kaddish to uphold Jewish distinctiveness-a controversial position introduced after World War II to preserve the tribe.  He also has great confidence (though he never seems smug) in his advocacy for civil rights and political correctness.  He's a hip, happening, secure guy with an intellectual righteousness.  Spiritually, though, he is so disconnected and hollow that he won't visit his aged mother because it's "difficult to see her that way."  Oglesby's Nia Sullivan leads her church choir with a voice that reaches deep inside her soul.  Shy and wary of jerry when they meet at Overeater's Anonymous (he's the group leader), she slowly opens up to him and even takes his suggestions to play with tradition in her worship, maybe even to introduce gender-neutral language.  

The overeaters' meeting is a device that bring the characters together.  Once we're past that, Krevolin and Kula get to the real business: a series of contentious arguments that explore white liberal self-satisfaction at helping African-Americans, and whether religion loses its savory richness when it becomes an exercise of the head rather than the heart.  Jerry tells Nia, after visiting her church, that he felt spiritual joy for the first time when hearing the song and praise of the congregation.  

Buoyed by his experience, Jerry helpfully encourages Nia to introduce the concept of God as mother in her church singing.  It goes badly, and Nia viscerally reminds Jerry that her congregation doesn't have the luxury of political correctness; members are trying to make sure families are fed and clothed.  Making like a social engineer may please Jerry but for Nia, it's just another example of liberal meddling.  

The transformational power of this play expresses itself in Jerry's evolution as a feeling creature.  Nia cracks open his vulnerability about his mother, and we come to see that her religious philosophy challenges his ideas on exclusivity.  Ultimately, Nia replenishes Jerry's arid spirituality.

Krevolin and Kula might build better connective tissue in "Gospel," but that feels like a bit after watching the play to its conclusion.  This is a script full of ideas and leavened by a message that favors love and kindness.  It is brisk, unsentimental and honest.  Lindberg and Oglesby dig into their characters with an audacious grasp for the issues and, fortunately for us, Oglesby has several opportunities to share her gorgeous singing voice.  Hayley Finn directs with a keen feel for the propositions being made by Krevolin and Kula. This truly feels like a play that needs to be seen for what it has to say.