If differing faiths can annihilate a family then the Stein family in Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “End Days,” playing now at Next Theatre, is host to a volatile hodgepodge of beliefs (Christianity, Judaism, atheism, Elvis worship, and more) that conflict like an ideological nuclear bomb.
Ms. Laufer’s play is an examination of a family disjointed after the 9/11 attacks. Father Arthur (William Dick) is too depressed to leave the house; mother Sylvia (Laura T. Fisher) has become a born-again Christian and raves about the rapture; and daughter Rachel (Carolyn Faye Kramer) has become a spiteful atheist Goth. The audience sees differences in systems of belief distilled in this family’s struggle for commonality.
Common ground is found in Nelson Steinberg (Adam Shalzi in an outstanding performance), a young neighbor with a crush on Rachel and an affinity for physics, polytheism and – judging by his satin jumpsuit – Elvis. Nelson’s innocent, wide-eyed exuberance and vastly open mind become the conduit for the Stein family’s connections with each other.
“End Days,” with director Shade Murray (of the Jeff-nominated “The Chosen”) at the helm, is an absurdly hilarious, profoundly human, well-acted ensemble piece that employs a dissection of faith to express a trust in individuality and a focus on the family as the true healer of all that ails us.
Mr. Shalzi’s romantic serenades (“Rachel Stein/If I asked you to Borders would you decline?”) and his Elvis-twanged Torah recitations are some of the funniest moments I have experienced on stage this year. His banter with the Ms. Kramer’s foul-mouthed, irritable Rachel is painfully honest and endearing.
An immensely expressive lighting and sound design by Lee Fiskness and Nick Keenan add layers to this family drama; the inclined set (by Andre LaSalle) places immediacy in the kitchen, where the Steins experience moments of divisiveness eventually offset by family meals and games.
Arthur exemplifies the melancholy that can come when most of the people one knows are senselessly taken in a single, blinding act of violence, as was the case with many on 9/11. Mr. Dick (the Next’s “Accidental Death of an Anarchist”) is pitch-perfect as a depressed dad who cannot force himself to buy groceries, but who develops a reminiscent glimmer in his eye when he helps Nelson with his Bar Mitzvah studies.
Ms. Fisher is an excellent actress (“Frozen,” “Defiance” with the Next), stunning again as Sylvia, a woman so hell-bent on protesting outside adult video stores and trying to “save” her family from the impending (she believes) rapture that she loses touch with them. The former atheist spends her days helping strangers and talking to Jesus (the always-engaging Next mainstay Joseph Wycoff, who also portrays Stephen Hawking here), ultimately losing herself as well.
Can fundamentalist Christian Kirk Cameron and his “Left Behind” films protect her family? Can love and support? Can Elvis?
A furious finale, complete with flashing lightning and crashing thunder, set to Johnny Cash’s Revelations-inspired “When the Man Comes Around,” answers those questions and more. This ambitious climax is imaginative and kinetic, but unfortunately lacks proper pacing. While Johnny Cash’s song is meant to be jarring, a more seamless transition would lend immediacy to the proceedings.
That petty gripe aside, the Next has a thought-provoking, thoroughly enjoyable (for so many reasons) production on its hands, the second in a season of plays that pit science against, and in conjunction with, religion. New artistic director Jason Southerland is thus far enjoying a compelling and successful season.
“End Days” runs through Nov. 29 at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St. For tickets call 847-475-1875. The production is 2 hours 15 minutes long, with an intermission.