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THEATER REVIEW The God of Isaac
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times
2017-07-19

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Playwright: James Sherman. At: Grippo Stage Company at Piven Theatre at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston. Tickets: 800-838-3006 or GrippoStageCompany.com; $39. Runs through: Aug. 27

American white supremacists garnered lots of media attention this past presidential election cycle, not only for their rebranding as the "alt-right" but also for their support for the candidate who unexpectedly came to power. So an intersectional member of a few minorities, like myself, might be very alarmed.

So perhaps Grippo Stage Company's revival of The God of Isaac, a 1985 history-inspired play by James Sherman ( Beau Jest, Affluenza! ), might have something to say about today's troubling times. After all, the play's advertising tagline bills it as a "beloved comedy about a young man seeking his Jewish identity as neo-Nazis threaten to march in Skokie, 1977."

Yes, there are neo-Nazis, though they remain offstage as their menacing intentions and controversial court battles are only described. The God of Isaac is really more of a light-hearted, if navel-gazing, exercise of one man named Isaac and his journey questioning what kind of Jew he should be.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. But this early semi-autobiographical Sherman work can feel very basic as age-old Jewish tropes ( an overbearing Jewish mother, anyone? ) and slightly altered pop-cultural touchstones get trotted out onstage for easy humor.

It also doesn't help that the cast under Dennis Zacek, the former artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater that first produced the play, is largely just okay. T. Isaac Sherman, who stars as the play's title Isaac, probably needs a few more years under his belt to be a more commanding narrator with better comic timing. I also would have like more drive to his character's journey of self-discovery.

Also slightly stilted is Jolie Lepselter as Isaac's Jewish ex-girlfriend, Chaya, and Annabel Steven as Isaac's goyish wife, Shelley. Lepselter's unsteady monologues describing her not-so-perfect marriage feel like odd attachments, while Steven comes off as hampered by Shelley's basic dialogue.

More characterful work comes from the more mature cast members like Brian Rabinowitz and Charles Schoenherr ( both taking on multiple roles ), while Anita Silvert has fun as Isaac's stereotypical nagging mother, Mrs. Adams.

But perhaps my expectations for what The God of Isaac might have dramatically explored were way off from what it actually is about. Rather than being a work about a community's response to an outside threat, The God of Isaac is more about one man's existential questioning of who he is as a Jew and his responsibilities to his faith, family and himself. That's no small potatoes, although it's not the course that I thought would be served in The God of Isaac.


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