"How can a just or loving God allow so much suffering in the world?" has been one of the fundamental questions posed by philosophers through the ages. In Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel's play The Trial of God, now in production at Balagula Theatre under the direction of Natasha Williams, the characters actually put God on trial in an effort to fathom that question.
Williams has done a creditable job of bringing to the stage this "closet drama" — a play meant to be read rather than performed. The story about survivors of a 17th-century Jewish pogrom in Eastern Europe is compelling, but the script itself is not very theatrical. It is a conversational play of ideas rather than a drama in which characters' interactions lead to an inexorable conclusion.
Williams allows the intense conversations to unfold in clear stage pictures, configuring the characters judiciously in the cramped acting space. She has also exercised artistic restraint by not imposing her own answer to the big question, allowing Wiesel's indeterminate conclusion to provoke the audience rather than seeking to make us comfortable.
However, since so little happens in the play itself, the actors must energize the conversations with special vocal eloquence to retain the audience's full attention. In this regard, the company could have used more guidance.
For example, Darius Fatemi, as the innkeeper Berish, embodies the spiritual pain and confusion of a "sole survivor" with skillful variety of expression, yet he never tips over into palpable anger, despite the scripts' many references to that very response. Similarly, Courtney Waltermire as his brutalized daughter, Hanna, comes across as ethereal rather than mentally compromised. As Maria, the inn's serving wench, Lauralyn Seamans Hungerford also portrays the character's regret without tapping into her rage, also clearly indicated in the script.
In other words, I think that Williams has miscalculated how to bring this strange play off the page and onto the stage. In her worthy attempt to let the words and arguments speak for themselves, she has diffused the characters from acting out their strongest emotions, or at least has not insisted upon the requisite energy from their performances.
It's not that the play is boring at all; it just never fulfills the logically extreme emotions predicated by normal human behavior under duress.
Some of this could be helped by better elocution. Even in a small theatrical space like Balagula, vocal support and clear diction are essential to communicating the script. This problem plagued almost all of the actors at some point in the evening.
There are some excellent performances, including Fatemi's, despite his lacking a core of anger. Lew Bowling, Ryan Case and Zachary Dearing are superb as the three itinerant players seeking to celebrate Purim at Berish's inn, despite not being able to hear or understand many of Dearing's lines at Sunday's opening-night performance. Bowling brings essential gravitas to his role.
Case creates the most complete character on the stage, not just full of his own joys, fears, and misgivings, but listening and reacting to the others' as well.
As Shem, the mysterious newcomer who acts as God's defense attorney, Russell Mendez injects some needed energy into the third act, but Williams allows him to address the audience directly, and his breaking the theatrical fourth wall so late in the play is disconcerting. I found myself wishing she had employed this technique with the other characters as well, thereby more directly involving the audience in the trial.
The rustic set and warm lighting design by Tom Willis are beautifully rendered and have a few theatrical surprises, which the play again could have used earlier than the third act. The detailed costumes by Joyce Anderson and Peggy Watts are very effective.
IF YOU GO
'The Trial of God (as it was held on February 25, 1649, in Shamgorod)'
What: Balagula Theatre's production of Elie Wiesel play, published in 1979 but not performed until 2000, about a fictitious trial calling God as the defendant.
When: 8 p.m. June10-12, 16-19
Where: Natasha's Bistro, 112 Esplanade
Tickets: $18, $12 students. Available at (859) 259-2754 or Beetnik.com.
Learn more: Balagula.com
■ Interfaith discussion panel of The Trial of God. 6:30 p.m. June 13. Temple Adath Israel, 124 N. Ashland Ave., Lexington. Free.
■ Photography exhibit highlighting the book Shadows Then Light. June 8-19. Natasha's Bistro. Author and artist talk, 4 p.m. June 16.