Review: Berkeley Rep’s ‘The Good Book’ a thrill that looks at the good and not so good

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Tape recorders, headphones and Saint statuettes fill the world of Connor (Keith Nobbs) in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “The Good Book,” running through June 9th. (Alessandra Mello photo)

There is a ferocity that lies within the Catholic priest, a man for whom there is no bend. In a small confessional in the back of the church, he and the utterly charming Connor engage in a battle of passions. For Connor, God is his passion, a young man who grew up consuming the Bible, a book that served as a guidepost for every important decision in his life. Yet for the priest, his passion for the Bible is an uncompromising dive into the cloth, a man who has given up everything on the earth for a faith that lies in a celestial divinity.

At some point in his life, Connor dreamed of an existence underneath a chasuble as well. His room is filled with little statuettes of saints, probably making him the Laura Wingfield of the Christian menagerie. His idealism is rich and full of hilarity, his future rests in clear focus. Yet, there is one major problem, which seems to have a stranglehold on absolutists like the priest. And these holy men who wield moral superiority over other believers, hanging Leviticus over their heads like the Sword of Damocles, give Connor no chance and tear his soul down with sickening, wicked irresponsibility.

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of “The Good Book,” written with harrowing detail by “An Iliad” authors Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare is not a play that proselytizes its viewpoints, but functions on a grander scale. It is loaded with mind-numbing biblical exposition wrapped around two specific narratives that weave themselves beautifully throughout the show’s nearly three hour run time, narratives that meld together to great effect in the show’s conclusion. Peterson, who also directs the piece, moves the action with a relative ease, incorporating a blank-slate set designed by Rachel Hauck which seems rooted in the classic musical “Godspell,” with its constant movement and the endless shifting of set pieces to create a plethora of locations. It’s also a musical that is mentioned in both the play and dramaturgical notes as a source of inspiration. Lighting and projections also greatly assist the space, designed by Alexander V. Nichols.

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An icy road causes danger for Miriam (Annette O’Toole) in “The Good Book.” (Alessandra Mello photo)

Those two stories focus on Connor (a fantastic, empathetic and varied performance by Keith Nobbs) and atheist Biblical scholar Miriam (A sharp and regal Annette O’Toole). While each narrative is shared and moves in various directions towards its ultimate denouement, an ensemble of five portray a multitude of characters that reflect the ancient and recent history of the Bible, its construction and how it continues to shape thought in our modern world.

While Miriam couldn’t be clearer on the fact that being an atheist and a biblical scholar are not mutually exclusive concepts, Connor is all in on this religion thing. Various saints even appear to him, folks such as St. Paul (boundlessly energetic Lance Gardner), obviously taking a break from his letter writing to the Corinthians. But what is infinitely painful to watch is how the Bible, which is supposed to be the text about love and glory is used to tear his life and mind apart. It’s not just the Bible that informs his agita, but his screaming parents (Gardner and sharp Denmo Ibrahim) clearly have no understanding of Connor and his quirky, tape-recording ways.

While Connor is all in on his Catholic guilt, Miriam has her own issues dealing with a New Yorker reporter (Shannon Tyo) and her piercing questions, and her lover Qasim (Elijah Alexander), a man who is not being faithful, engaging in a relationship with a higher power through prayer.

The power of the show is in its conflict. The Bible, a book rooted in ancient civilizations, is an enigma. How is it possible that a text filled with love, empathy, pathos and understanding is also the same book used to justify murders, genocides, hatred and scorn? This is what is fascinating about Connor, who grows to detest the book he loved so much. Reconnection with a tormentor (Wayne Wilcox) in his youthful days continues to make the book and his feelings for it a challenge to reconcile.

In the Gospel of Luke, as Jesus Christ was affixed on the cross, two prisoners lay dying beside him. One of those prisoners wanted proof of his divinity. The other was satisfied by faith in a heavenly world beyond the splintery cross he hung upon.

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Lance Gardner (Alessandra Mello photo)

That is often the conundrum of religious belief. In much of the Bible, there are things that cannot be proven and defy all scientific logic, but for believers, they are accepted, a true tenet of faith. On the contrary, Miriam’s world and her infinite wisdom about the science behind the book will not allow her faith, even in moments where a prayer or two might possibly do her a heaping of good. In a critical moment in her life, she has a choice to make, a song to sing, a road to walk upon. Will it be faith or science that informs her choice?

Connor is caught in a traumatic existence where only one verse out of context shapes his entire world, yet he continues to search for the faith he possessed and the love and companionship he was bound to have. Both Nobbs and O’Toole go to great lengths to shape the critical choices their characters make, and their moments together are rich with texture and power.

“The Good Book” is a critical, life-affirming piece of work that should inspire dialogue long after the curtain closes. It’s a reminder that whether you have delved into the Bible for daily affirmations, a dose of spiritual belief, or to read about the challenges of Job or Jonah, the book has shaped thought throughout the world and will continue to do so. Whether read as sacred or secular, the book is a triumph in literary history.

But at the same time, for those who use man’s word of God to oppress and prove that some human beings are less than others, those people really should read more and thump less.

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
The Word: A thorough examination of the Bible, its construction and how it is used to both hurt and harm, told through two compelling narratives assisted by a tight cast of seven.
Stars: 5 out of 5
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

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