“What the Jews Believe” is asking some tough questions in trying times and can be ineffably moving at times. Like the lightning that flashes in this central Texas town at the top of the show, this play can illuminate, crystallize and grab you by the heart several times throughout the course of the evening. Much of the evening is taken up with theological debate among the four adult characters whose circumstances sometimes strain credulity but there is no denying the power or worth of these questions of faith as posed by this fantastic cast.
The first moment that caught me by the throat, eyes, and heart was 20 minutes into the first act when father and son are wrestling on the front lawn. 12½-year-old Nate (the irrepressible Logan Weibrecht) is initially squirming, with knock-knock jokes seeming to be his only defense as his loving father (towering Benim Foster) overpowers him and holds him, strong and still and in this firm grip tells his son that his beloved mother Rachel (radiant Emily Donahoe) has an incurable cancer and that the doctors have done all that they can and they must prepare themselves for her leaving them. Nate tells his father he’s full of poop and his father Dave responds with you can be childish again at some time in the future but for now, we need you to be a man. Do your work, pay attention and behave…my eyes were hot and stinging with the tears welling behind them. These two held me in the palm of their hand all night and a late scene on the roof of the house just might open your floodgates.
Preparing for Nate’s Bar Mitzvah, they are visited by Rabbi Bindler (avuncular and kind Robert Zuckerman) who has traveled very far to minister to this Jewish family in the desert. Nate has been struggling with records of his grandfather’s reading of the Torah his only help and Rabbi Bindler is dubious of his progress when he is ambushed by Rachael who demands to know why she is dying and why God is letting this happen to her. He responds that Job was right to question God. It’s a terrific, impossible scene of scathing anger played expertly by Donahoe and Zuckerman.
Staying in their house to help care for Rachel is her Aunt Sarah (the superb Cynthia Mace) who at the end of the first act converts Rachel in her time of need to Christian Science. You leave the theater for intermission reeling. The play and the evening are helped enormously by the welcome, sunny presence of Ms. Mace who makes her proselytizing enormously appealing and attractive.
The set designed by Randall Parsons is framed with windows, doors, platforms and a scrim in the kitchen letting you see into and through the house and the playwright and director Mark Harelik makes full use of the intimate Unicorn Theatre, staging exits and entrances from multiple corners of the theatre. The costumes by Hunter Kaczorowski were lovely and one of the only indicators that placed the show in the mid-fifties.
The cast is uniformly excellent and I greatly appreciated the hard questions of faith and especially the differences in beliefs and where individuals needed to draw the line for themselves. They look at each other and acceptance of our differences in life and death circumstances are not addressed often enough. This play can reach heart-piercing insights thru much debate that takes a great deal of patience but is greatly rewarded.