Playwright James Sherman has demonstrated in several plays his aptitude for presenting aspects of being a Jew and aspect of being, well, a Chicagoan. Both are on display in The God of Isaac, now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre.
In plays like Beau Jest, Jest A Second! and The Old Man’s Friend, Sherman has also blended humor and pathos to good effect, as he does here. This time his protagonist is Isaac Adams (Sid Solomon), a Chicago journalist turned playwright who’s trying to mount a very personal show about his journey of discovery when it comes to the question, “What does it mean to be a Jew?”
It’s a particularly pertinent question to the nonobservant Isaac, because the play is set in 1977 and shortly after, at the time a real neo-Nazi group was planning a march in largely Jewish Skokie, Illinois. Isaac, whose parents seldom attended synagogue, hasn’t really taken much notice of being Jewish since his bar mitzvah. He’s even married a shiksa (Rachel Moulton), a blond fashion model who’s pretty clueless about his religion. But then, so is Isaac.
Hi quest to figure out what being Jewish means to him takes him in turn to a kindly rabbi (Eric Hoffmann), a rabid if ill-informed member of the Jewish Defense League (Kevin Cristaldi), his mother (Marina Re), who also heckles him from the audience as his “play” is being presented, and his longtime friend, one-time girlfriend, Chaya (Rebeca Miller), to whom the Jewish faith means a great deal. Most poignantly, it also takes him to a tailor (Hoffmann again; four members of the cast play multiple roles) who is a survivor of the Holocaust.
Along the way, Isaac starts to become more outspoken and more committed to some sort of Jewish identity, leading to cracks in his marriage as he pressures his wife in ways she can’t understand or accept. And Sherman shines a particularly Jewish light on certain cultural icons, whether it be the Wizard of Oz or Huck Finn or the Joad family of The Grapes of Wrath, in comic bits taking place in Isaac’s imagination.
The cast, under the direction of Kate Alexander, works with the right balance of comedy and seriousness. Re has the whole Jewish mother thing down pat; Miller is touching as Chaya, lost in an unhappy marriage; Moulton at her best when really fighting back against Isaac’s sudden demands. Solomon may occasionally shout a bit more than he really needs to to express his frustrations, but he’s mostly engaging enough to take us on his journey with him.
And, of course, as it turns out, that journey is not just a Jewish one. With a few lines between Isaac and his mother towards the end of the play, the direction of The God of Isaac does become more universal—especially for a young man or woman trying to create his or her own life.
The God of Isaac continues through Aug. 21; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.