Chicago Theatre Review
The Chosen Ones
Jesus the Jew as told but his Brother James – Greenhouse Theatre
What would it be like to grow up with the Son of God? For James (Steven Stafford), son and Joseph and Mary, it was a remarkably normal childhood filled with misadventures, joys and tragedies. But it also initiated him into a profound faith a spar to cling to during his brother’s death and beyond. It has also provided an example, a track through a trackless waste of grief for Jeremy Miller (Stafford again) a professor at the University of Chicago who’s own brother has been tortured and killed in Syria.
By conjuring Jame’s last sermon to a congregation of “jewish-christians,” persecuted both by the Romans, the leaders of the great temple, and the far more numerous, aggressive sect lead by the Apostle Paul, Jeremy hopes to find inspiration for tackling his brother’s death. At least I believe that’s what playwright William Spatz is aiming for. It’s hard to tell sometimes. The biblical and contemporary stories, knit together by an obnoxiously helpful sound design (Are you getting this? Do you need more voice overs? Would some violins help?) tend to get tangled.
As the soft voiced bishop of Jerusalem, smoothing his points with his hands, Stafford is both abashedly earnest and endearingly droll, (“Lots of Jewish mothers think their sons can walk on water, but in this case…”). His gentleness is blown away by a strident roar when his ire is roused by disrespect to Jewish law or the distortion of his brother’s message. Both faults he finds in Paul (who he embodies with the aggravated energy of our enemies) who seems determined on chucking out the Torah and concocting the flashy, and virulently anti-jewish, milk’n’honey’n’fire’n’brimstone christianity we are familiar with today.
Spatz does a lovely job of painting life (particularly teenaged life) in Judea two thousand years ago, and capturing the spirit of an idolizing and jealous younger sibling. His spirited defense of what it means to be jewish is enrapturing but sometimes strays us far from the path of the narrative. The finer points of what constitutes marriage (as regarding the question of Mary Magdalene), and the rather on-the-nose observances of women’s rights and the permissibility of abortion under the Law, while interesting, little besuit a man hours away from torture and death.
Jesus the Jew is as moving as it is enlightening, and it serves as a nutritious bone to chew on if you enjoy theological quandaries like Hnaths’ The Christians. It’s a reflective piece but not an active one, a sermon and not a story. Still, as we get a little bit of every day holiness trapped in a Hyde Park apartment (lovingly designed by Milo Bue’s) James offers us a chance to weigh what is important to us in matters of faith, and take the first steps to it’s principal directive: the difficult business of being a better person.
by Ben Kemper
Greenhouse Theater Center 2257 N. Lincoln Ave
Near Fullerton Red, Brown and Purple Line stop)
Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30, with Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 2:30.
For more information about this or other productions (and for half priced tickets) visit Theaterinchicago.com