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THEATER REVIEW The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson...
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2016-05-25

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Playwright: Scott Carter. At Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets: 847-673-6300; Northlight.org; $25-$79. Runs through: June 12

Playwright Scott Carter spent years exploring his own Christian beliefs and, in the process, found that Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy all wrote their own highly personal versions of the New Testament gospels. In Discord, Carter throws the three together in an afterlife limbo—a sterile interrogation room—to discuss Christian philosophy. Tolstoy ( died 1910 ) knows who Dickens and Jefferson were, Dickens ( died 1870 ) knows who Jefferson was but Tom ( third president, 1801-1809 ) hasn't a clue about the other two.

That's the gist of Discord, a work of Christian apology ( meaning literature defending Christian faith ) which assumes a priori acceptance of God and Christ. The play may be of less purpose to those who do not accept God or Christ or both. For such individuals, however, Discord still will be an impressive and entertaining work of intellectual examination, revealing facets of the three great men beyond their best-known claims to fame.

None of the three was a conventionally observant Christian ( Tolstoy was excommunicated, Dickens was pietistic but not pious ), and all three were notable for moral inconsistencies and hypocrisies which Carter includes ( Jefferson's ownership of slaves and Dicken's and Tolstoy's treatment of their wives and children ). It's the fact that they questioned orthodoxy—Jefferson and Tolstoy far more than Dickens—that makes their three-way debate, and their individual versions of The Gospels—interesting. George Bernard Shaw probably would have admired Discord for both literary and ideological reasons.

This production is extremely well done under director Kimberly Senior, the Chicago-based veteran who has achieved a deserved national reputation. Actors Nathan Hosner, Jeff Parker and Mark Montgomery are dead-ringers respectively for Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy as they appeared in their late-youthful primes ( with assists from costume designer Nan Zabriskie and uncredited wig/makeup masters ). As delineated by Carter, the personalities of the characters are effective but rather simplistic with Jefferson as the self-effacing diplomat and compromiser, Dickens as an egocentric star ( he was an actor ) and Tolstoy as blustery and argumentative.

Not surprisingly, there can be no final meeting of the minds because Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy are discussing articles of faith and not something subject to empirical conclusions. Religion, of course, was a private matter; an issue in which none of the three had particular public expertise. It might have been a far more universal play to have the three discuss social justice, liberal reform and the limits of government—topics about which all three took revolutionary public positions.


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