The Struggle to Find Faith and Meaning in The Good Book

An atheist and a gay teenager each question their relationship to the Bible in this Berkeley Rep production.

(Foreground) Keith Nobbs (Connor); (background, l to r) Wayne Wilcox (Man 2) and Annette O’Toole (Miriam) in Berkeley Rep’s production of The Good Book (Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

The Good Book is full of sound and fury, but if you aren’t Christian or haven’t read the Bible (God forbid!) the melodramatic storyline doesn’t signify very much to the everyday heathen. All the hullabaloo concerns two divergent plot lines that, like a divine miracle, converge in a contrived final scene. Lisa Peterson (who also directed) and Denis O’Hare co-wrote a script that tests the faith of a card-carrying atheist and, separately, a conflicted, penitential homosexual. To the religious right, both seem like perfect candidates meant for eternal burning in Hell. To a pragmatic agnostic — obviously, a minority party in America — it’s hard to understand what all the fuss is about.

How Miriam and Connor end up stitched together in the same play also stretches the limits of narrative credulity. Miriam (Annette O’Toole), the atheist, is an academic who’s devoted her entire career to — you guessed it — studying the Bible. She’s got a wry enough sense of humor about herself to find the irony in this juxtaposition. But in her long, successful career she hasn’t found that her atheism is incompatible with her research or her students’ beliefs. For her, it’s not a religious text. The Bible is, instead, an arbitrary collection of myths, like Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and nothing more.

As an adolescent, Keith Nobbs (Connor) is determined to become a priest. But something below his waist indicates that a celibate life is not in his preordained future. He keeps an audio diary of his thoughts on a tape recorder so that the audience can keep tabs on his inner life. His parents aren’t woke and they don’t know what to make of a boy who prefers reading to playing sports. As we watch him grow up, he admits to feeling confused and conflicted about his sexuality, but he continues to believe in God. Keith participates in church and even goes to confession — until a priest chastises him for being gay.

Annette O’Toole (Miriam) in Berkeley Rep’s production of The Good Book (Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

And how do these two stories resonate with each other? They don’t. Not for a minute. For almost three hours, I strained to make any intellectual, emotional, or spiritual connection between Miriam and Keith. In their own right, each character was familiar enough, with a believable story worth telling. But instead of finding a way to blend their lives together organically, the playwrights invented kooky interstitials. The game supporting cast kept showing up in occasional cameos, in outlandish costumes, to play notable persons such as Johannes Gutenberg (Denmo Ibrahim), King James (Wayne Wilcox) and King Solomon (Lance Gardner).

Or was that turbaned fellow supposed to be King David? Regardless, these mini-plays or sketches-within-the-play were all diverting. They succeeded in being illustrative of Miriam’s secular fantasy life and Keith’s religious one. You could argue that that’s the only connection needed to bind them. But The Good Book goes on to punish Miriam in a way that Keith never experiences. When her husband (Elijah Alexander) announces that he’s going to leave her because he’s been too afraid to tell her that he believes in God, it feels like the playwrights have stacked the deck against an atheist. She loves him and seems mature enough to accept his faith, but isn’t given the opportunity to do so.

O’Toole, recognizable from a variety of movie and TV roles, relishes the part. It affords her an opportunity to be a truth-teller and to be spiteful, which feels like a welcome departure for her. Miriam carries the play’s agenda in her DNA. She answers religious zealotry with her acerbic yet reasoned responses. Her tragic flaw is that she isn’t polite or politic enough to charm people. Is she being made to suffer for her rationality? As we neared the overwrought ending, I had the (probably imagined) sense that O’Toole didn’t know why Miriam’s arc went from bad to worse, either. She didn’t need to earn the audience’s sympathy by being mistreated. As O’Toole plays her, Miriam is a sympathetic figure as soon as she starts to speak.

As for the parable of Keith, everything turns out fine for him because, I suppose, he’s a true believer. Sure, he spent his formative years in agony but that’s because the good book told him to. But all he did after that was question his belief in God — he didn’t relinquish it. That puts him on a higher spiritual plane than Miriam, who doesn’t rate without a set of monotheistic beliefs. The Good Book is as punitive as the sacred text it attempts to parse. Miriam deserves her own happy ending, without a god or an author who takes the time to damn irreligious souls.

The Good Book, through June 9 at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. $45-97; 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org

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