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Laughter has always been a hallmark of Jewish creativity, and playwright James Sherman’s 1985 play The God of Isaac, revived this summer by Grippo Stage Company, makes full use of it to tackle serious questions about Jewish American identity.
Mr. Sherman has a long association with Second City as well as Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, where his plays were produced for many years by then-artistic director Dennis Zacek, who also directs the current production.
The play is set in the late 1970s in Skokie, a suburb whose population at the time was around 50% Jewish and included More than 5,000 Holocaust survivors. In 1977 a Neo-Nazi group calling itself the National Socialist Party planned a public march in full Nazi uniform, precipitating ordinances by the city of Skokie to stop the march, followed by an ACLU lawsuit to permit the march on Constitutional grounds, and a national discussion that included President Jimmy Carter.
This crisis frames the moral journey of the play’s protagonist, a young, non-practicing Jewish American named Isaac, who must confront the question “What does it mean to be Jewish?” and related issues of personal identity, community and faith. Disarmingly played by T. Isaac Sherman (the son of the playwright), Isaac has good intentions towards all, yet is clueless about the principles that have given resilience to the Jewish community, and enabled his comfortable life.
The influence of sketch comedy shapes the play, which unfolds as a series of vignettes between Isaac and members of the Jewish community. These include two Hassidic Jews, a rabbi enthusiastic about Israel, a member of the Jewish Defense League who believes in an armed response to anti-Semitism, a concentration camp survivor, and both of his working-class parents. While brief, some of these scenes move beyond humor into poignancy, as when Isaac talks to his deceased father, a factory worker who put in long days and had little left for a relationship with his son. I was reminded of Robert Hayden’s lines about his hardworking and silent father, “What did I know, what did I know/ Of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
These brief dialogues are interlaced with comic bits in which Isaac’s dilemma morphs into scenes from classic Hollywood films (particularly funny is the riff on On the Waterfront, in which Isaac-Marlon Brando laments, “I coulda been a Mensch!”).
Anita Silvert is hilarious as the classic Jewish mother, by turns sharp-tongued, guilt-provoking, affectionate and wise, who keeps interrupting Isaac’s monologues.
The only dramatically developed relationship is Isaac’s deteriorating marriage with his non-Jewish wife Shelly, somewhat stereotyped as the good-looking gentile girl who can’t pronounce “shiksa” and casually refers to “jewing down” a salesman. She is contrasted to Isaac’s former girlfriend, Chaya, an also somewhat outdated portrait of a Jewish American Princess. Strong performances by Annabel Steven and Jolie Lepselter make the two women more sympathetic and nuanced than one initially expects.
Skokie has long been regarded as a bastion of all things Jewish, and this stereotype finds its way into the drama – Isaac brings up the joke about a Jewish mother asked about her children’s ages; she responds, “the lawyer is four; the doctor is six.” Ultimately, though, “The God of Isaac” does not confirm these clichés, but rather uses laughter to tap into the deeper vein of Jewish American identity where humor masks pain, and becomes a form of resistance.
Now in its second season, Grippo Stage Company’s mission is to produce theater as “a powerful weapon against bigotry and hate, especially anti-Semitism.” A regular feature is an after-show discussion with the actors, director and playwright. When I attended, two rabbis participated as well, and the discussion addressed the pressures on contemporary Jewish identity such as the decline of organized religion, the fragmenting effect of social media, and generations of intermarriage, but also the ongoing strength of the Jewish American community. “The God of Isaac” runs through Aug. 27 at the Piven Theater, Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St.: 8 p.m. Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays.