Review: The infidel spotlight on faith leaders who are losing their religion

It’s a well-known story: you spend thousands of dollars and years of your life chasing your dream job only to find out it’s not really for you. Will you cut your losses and start over? Or, like Macbeth, do you choose to wade further into a life of lies? That’s the choice for the people profiled in Marin Gazzaniga’s The Unbelieving, which now has its world premiere with the Civilians on 59E59. These people are not doctors, athletes or actors – they are members of the clergy. And their reassessment of the purpose of their lives is also a reckoning with the existence of God himself.

The script is based on the 2013 book Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola (both appearing above the title as producers). Like many Civilians shows, The Unbelieving is told in documentary form, with Linda (Nina Hellman) interviewing a series of individuals whose lines are drawn from real-life subjects.

There is Adam (David Aron Baker), a Church of Christ minister who began reading arguments against religion to convert unbelievers, but eventually convinced himself that God is a fiction. Sherm (Richard Topol) is an Orthodox rabbi who found more satisfaction in scientific evidence than the Talmud. And the award-winning Imam Mohamed (Joshua David Robinson) struggled to reconcile the idea of ​​an almighty Allah whose will leaves the door open to satanic temptation.

David Aron Baker plays Adam in Marin Gazzaniga’s The Unbelieving, directed by Steve Cosson, at 59E59.(© Richard Termine)

Linda interviews a deceased nun (Sonnie Brown), a Mormon bishop (Dan Domingues), and even a Pentecostal preacher who speaks in tongues (Jeff Biehl conjures up one of the show’s most chilling moments). Leaving religion is not just a matter of dumping superstitions for these people. It often means estrangement from family and friends, and even exile. This is not a comfortable position for a person who is seen as a pillar of a faith community.

Steve Cosson directs the production with simple efficiency: scenes flow naturally from one to the next, with characters often staying on to respond to the statements of other subjects, allowing for drama and interaction in a story that would otherwise only be between interviewer and interviewee. to be. This culminates in the dramatization of a secret online message board, visualized here as a support group. When the actors go out and come in, it’s through elegant bits of choreography (movement by Sean Donovan).

Andrew Boyce and Se Hyun Oh’s set evokes the nondescript hotel rooms in which the interviews are said to have taken place (a tone shift is signaled by the cracking of vertical blinds, with Lucrecia Briceno’s natural light pouring in from the stage). Emily Rebholz and Miriam Kelleher’s costumes give us a sense of character (the floral-print shirt and roomy cardigan Brown is wearing is extra nunny). Christian Frederickson underscores much of the play with tense piano music, giving The Unbelieving the feel of a true crime podcast investigating apostasy and being very much on the side of the accused.

Sonnie Brown plays a dilapidated nun in Marin Gazzaniga’s The Unbelieving, directed by Steve Cosson, at 59E59.(© © 2022 Richard Termine)

The actors, half of whom are in double roles, give us a strong first impression of their characters so that they are easy to distinguish (Brown is a master of finely nuanced dialect work). Topol gives a suitably maddening performance as an episcopal priest who wants to dispute the study’s findings, but whose liberal theology is about as squishy as Jell-O. Perhaps that is why his faith persists, while those from more fragile traditions felt the need to break. It’s fascinating stuff, but after 65 minutes we feel like we’ve only seen the first episode.

The unsatisfactory ending of The Unbelieving is reminiscent of an AA meeting, suggesting that when people change their minds, they often trade one set of tribal rituals for another. You get the sense that the real drama is set after the events of the play, especially in a country where politics is increasingly filling the void left by organized religion.

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