It is hard, maybe impossible even, to think of a book that has influenced the world more than the Bible. “The teachings of the Bible are so interwoven and entwined with our whole civic and social life,” President Theodore Roosevelt once said. “There is nothing more radical, nothing more revolutionary, nothing more subversive against injustice and oppression than the Bible,” claimed Desmond Tutu.
The Bible is all things to all people. It’s read as a testament of faith for the faithful, but also consumed as a secular text, with many life lessons strewn throughout that apply to believers, agnostics or atheists.
Playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, who found great success with their 2012 play “An Iliad,” are taking a deep dive into the Bible and how its narratives have impacted American societies for centuries. The West Coast premiere of “The Good Book,” now running at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through June 9th, is a play that weaves together three specific and connected stories – a devoutly Christian young man with his own belief struggles, an atheist biblical scholar, and the bible itself with its journey from the ancient world to now.
Stage and screen actor Annette O’Toole’s own biblical and faith journey began in her native Texas as a little girl. Before moving on to high school in Los Angeles, O’Toole’s memories of her Catholic upbringing were cemented at Blessed Sacrament School in Houston. It was there that she became smitten with the ritualistic nature of Catholicism.
Whether it was the familiarity of the traditions, the nuns who were her teachers she remembers fondly or even the very long Good Friday services, O’Toole was captivated by all of it.
“The stories were so vivid to me, especially the stories of the saints, they are so very theatrical,” said O’Toole. “I loved to go to church because the school was right there, and I would go into church during lunch time and recess, finding novenas nobody knew about.
“It was like being in a religious club where I was the only member.”
When the opportunity to be part of a production where the Bible and its impact on societies came about, O’Toole leaped at the chance for multiple reasons. She plays the atheist biblical scholar Miriam, a thrilling role awash in depth. And just as importantly, this was an opportunity to work with Peterson, who is also directing the show.
“When I first read the play, I was so taken with it because it was about so much, and it’s amazing how much they cover,” said O’Toole. “The story is about the two characters and also the making of the Bible from the beginning. It’s amazing how they weave that story into the two main characters.”
The opportunity to work with Peterson in an all-encompassing way, from writer to director, was something O’Toole wasn’t willing to pass up.
“She’s the kind of person who walks into a room and is the most brilliant person in the room. When you come to work with her, you have to bring a lot and she kind of hones it for you. She’s very meticulous and sees everything that’s going and everything that everyone’s doing. She’s the most observant director I’ve ever worked with.”
O’Toole has had a career that started in earnest at about three-years-old as a student in her mother’s dance class. It’s a career that has seen wonderful roles on the big and small screen, with some great Bay Area touches sprinkled throughout. There was Nick Nolte’s wife in “48 Hours,” set in San Francisco, and a recurring role with another Bay Area setting in “Nash Bridges.” Now, being able to spend extended time in the Bay Area is thrilling for O’Toole, a place she hasn’t spent a lot of time prior. And to do it through a play and not a movie set, even better.
“In a film you come to the set and don’t have a lot of time to rehearse, but in theatre, it takes all of you, everything you have,” said O’Toole. “I love that it’s your work, you and the director, your fellow actors and the audience. There’s all these cogs in the machine working together to create an experience, and it’s always different and constantly so alive.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre Presents “The Good Book”
Written by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Through June 9th
Running time: Two hours, 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Berkeley Rep Peet’s Theatre
2025 Addison St, Berkeley CA 94704
Tickets range from $30 – $97
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org