Chicago Theatre Review
Three Intellectual Titans Debate Life’s Biggest Questions in Brilliant ‘Discord’
Discord – Northlight Theatre
Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy were three uniquely brilliant men of different countries and eras, but they all shared a remarkable achievement – all three re-wrote the Christian gospels, emphasizing the aspects of Jesus’ life and teachings that best suited their interpretation of the truth. With Jefferson, Jesus’ miracles were cast aside in favor of his parables and philosophies. With Dickens, the miracles and narrative splendor were paramount. And with Tolstoy, scriptural accuracy and literal translation were key, as they laid bare Christ’s radical, revolutionary message of egalitarianism and pacifism.
Those religious passions form the backbone of “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord,” the remarkably witty, meticulously researched play from Scott Carter, which is receiving its Chicago premiere at Northlight Theatre.
The set-up could not be simpler: a stage, featuring nothing more than two chairs, a table, and a door (think a makeshift police interrogation room) receives, one by one, Jefferson, Dickens, and then Tolstoy. Perplexed at why they have entered the strange room and not, as they had anticipated, heaven’s open arms, the men bicker and clash in the play’s opening minutes until they learn of their shared passion for the gospels; thus, the true heart of the play takes shape, and the men share their interpretations and open them to the critique (if not ridicule) of their competitors.
Walking into Northlight to see “Discord,” I worried that it would be a fun but cheeky play, one that was so consumed with its own cleverness that it ultimately became bereft of seriousness meaning and grit. Nothing could be further from the case in Carter’s play, which not presents serious scholarship and interpretation of the Bible’s construction and Jesus’ teachings, but also, via an immensely talented cast and flawless direction from Kimberly Senior, truly brings its historical characters to life, and in all their contradictions: as Thomas Jefferson, Nathan Hosner is both loquacious Southern gentleman and timid public speaker, passionate defender of not only liberty and reason, but also slavery and apartheid; as Tolstoy, the brilliant Mark Montgomery is passionate in both his commitment to equality and his dislike of others, the kind who would spend two years mastering Greek to study the earliest Biblical manuscripts and, in a blinding (albeit very funny) rage, attempt to murder his fellow intellectuals; and as Charles Dickens, Jeff Parker completes a remarkable transformation, pivoting effortlessly from the sensitive, sincere gay man he played in Northlight’s production of “Mothers and Sons” to the intensely passionate, intensely egotistical Dickens, a man who fights against slavery and tenement living on one hand and proclaims his incomparable genius in another.
And most important of all, Carter is too smart of a playwright to let his characters off the hook. Historical dramas far too often fall victim to idolatry. These individuals were so brilliant and wonderful, the logic goes, that not only do they deserve to be characters in their own plays/movies/TV series
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through June 12 at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, Skokie, IL 60077
Tickets are available by calling (847) 673-6300 or by visiting http://www.northlight.org
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.