In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Laura Gray, one of the best actors in Milwaukee, portrays a woman locked in Christianity. (PHOTO: Ross E. Zentner)

Two powerful local plays cast different portrayals of organized religion

Over the weekend, I saw two powerful plays that both used organized religion as a centerpiece, which raised some questions for me about how theater reflects the world of faith.

At The Rep, "Disgraced" features, as the main character, a Muslim man who has disavowed any pious belief in Islam. Adding to the consternation in this play, his wife is a devotee of Islamic art and there is also a Jewish art dealer in the mix.

At Renaissance Theaterworks, one of the main characters in "Luna Gale" is a woman who is an avowed evangelical Christian. She is aided along her path of holiness by her pastor, who is unctuous and almost perverse in his manipulation.

The most interesting thing about these two plays is how they treat religious faith so differently.

In "Disgraced," playwright Ayad Akhtar uses religion as a trampoline, creating characters who defy their religious conventions and the piety of their faiths.

The Muslim man in "Disgraced" has no truck with the trappings of Islam. Despite entreaties, he refuses to use his legal skills to help an imam who has been jailed for raising funds for terrorist organizations. His wife, on the other hand, is concerned about his non-religious attitude and feels helpless to get him to become more devout.

In "Luna Gale" the mother of a young woman takes shelter in her Christian belief and practices. She displays a devotion that seems almost out of control.

The treatment of Islam by Ayad Akhtar in his play is a complex one, showing and referencing everything about the religion. He talks about devoted Muslims and the gathering of terrorists who have become fanatical about the religion.

The most obvious thing about Akhtar is that his portrayal of Islam is non-judgemental. Nowhere will you find a thread of overall criticism. The hero of the play even says that he would have felt pride in his fellow Muslims after the Sept. 11 catastrophe.

He creates a character who has made decisions about his faith, but when forced to face difficult questions is ambivalent. The audience, too, is left with a mixture of intellectual considerations of Islam.

In "Luna Gale," Rebecca Gilman creates a character who is almost overwhelming in her Christianity. She plays a pivotal role in the play and her influence is profound on her daughter, who is at the heart of the drama.

The difficult thing that Gilman presents is that, while the character of Cindy has depth, her sort of Christianity is practically the worst stereotype people have about devotees who have been "born again."

What she says and what she does and the sanctity with which she takes custody of her granddaughter, the baby named Luna Gale, are almost cloying.

I'm not a fan of the rigidity of born-again Christians. I think the religion is one of the most intolerant I've ever known and I believe one of the primary tenets of Christianity is to be tolerant of others.

I'm not sure how this issue in "Luna Gale" could have been fixed, or even whether it should have been.

Laura Gray is an immaculate actor who finds, despite the script difficulties, a well-rounded woman torn by griefs and sorrows. Mary MacDonald Kerr is an experienced and sensitive actor and director.

Neither one of them could have done anything about this religious stereotype that played into the most severe sort of prejudice against evangelical Christianity.

I think it's a rare religion that is all-anything and just one thing. To each religion there is some redemption, and that ought to find its way into any portrayal of it on the stage.


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