What does it mean to be a Jew? That’s the question at the heart of James Sherman’s “The God of Isaac,” now on stage at Florida Studio Theatre. The play’s hero didn’t worry about the question for years. Raised in a non-religious Jewish household, Isaac (Sid Solomon) took his Jewishness for granted. At least until the Nazis decided to march through his town.
The year was 1977; the town was Skokie, Ill., just outside of Chicago. The American Nazi Party figured it was the perfect place for a parade. Throwing salt on old wounds was their real goal. Skokie was home to many Holocaust survivors.
Until the goose-steppers arrived, Isaac had it made. He was a successful stringer for The Chicago Tribune; his wife, Shelly (Rachel Moulton) was a gorgeous shikse model pulling $500 bucks an hour for every photo shoot. Life was good.
But the impending Nazi march rocks Isaac’s psychic foundations. He doesn’t know who he is anymore. They hate me because I’m Jewish. But what does that mean? While the Nazis fight for their “right of free assembly” in the courts, Isaac fights to regain his sense of self.
Strip the play of its comedy, and it’s a Joseph W. Campbell-style hero’s journey. Somewhere on the road of life, Isaac’s lost his Jewish soul. He’s got to retrace his steps and find it.
Isaac’s quest leads him to a rabbi, a tailor, his mother, the apparition of his late father, his childhood sweetheart and a flak from the Jewish Defense League. Everyone he meets gets the same question: What does it mean to be a Jew? He gets a different answer every time. His quest goes on. Isaac loses his job; he loses his wife; the journey strips him of everything superficial. He still goes on. With every step Isaac takes, he feels less certain of his Jewishness. The more he doubts, the more Jewish he becomes.
That’s the hero’s journey without the comedy. But Joseph Campbell had no sense of humor. Our Jewish hero definitely does.
And he’s an obvious stand-in for the playwright.
The play opens. Isaac instantly breaks the fourth wall. He says you’re watching the opening night of a play he just wrote. He’s playing himself — and his mother (Marina Re) is in the audience. She interrupts him with loud comments like one of the rude robots in “Mystery Science Theatre 3000.” But Isaac bravely soldiers on.
After ripping off the opening of “A Glass Menagerie,” he tells you flat out that you’re watching a memory play. You’re expecting a sad litany of bad memories. Instead, you get a Groucho-style free-associational riff. Isaac finally gets around to a quick history of the Nazi shindig. And its shattering effect on his identity.
The play constantly punctures all that deeply deep seriousness with pop culture vignettes recast with Jewish characters. The stars of “Huck Finn,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and “The Wizard of Oz,” become members of the tribe. It’s hilarious. But it drives his mother crazy.
She cries out from the audience, “What’s with all the shticklach?”
I forget Isaac’s answer. My answer? The shtick is more than a spoonful of comedy sugar to make the medicine of truth go down. It’s a funny play, because the playwright sees the world in funny terms. There’s not a mean-spirited bone in Sherman’s body.
Structurally, the play shifts between scenes and stand-up. Isaac talks to you; a memory unfolds; so it goes. Director Kate Alexander nicely handles the constant shifts of tone. She gets the laughs, without laughing over the serious moments.
Solomon hits all the right notes as Isaac, constantly alternating between stand-up and performances in scenes. Isaac’s a pilgrim on a spiritual quest. Refreshingly, he’s not insane or wearing a permanent scowl. Solomon breathes life into the character and keeps you engaged. Shelly (Rachel Moulton) is dynamic as Isaac’s wife, Shelly. She resembles a sexy, but liberated gentile woman from an Alan Rudolph movie who accidently wandered into a Chaim Potok novel. Moulton gives a willing performance, despite the words she has to play. (I figure Sherman tried not to make Shelly a bimbo. But he could’ve tried harder.) Rebeca Miller periodically pops up as Chaya—Isaac’s rejected childhood sweetheart, and the road not taken. Miller is sweet as this Orthodox Jewish earth mother—a sweet character, who never rubs it in when Isaac’s mixed-faith marriage hits the rocks. Kudos also to Eric Hoffmann and Kevin Cristaldi for portrayals of multiple characters, including Isaac’s father, a rabbi, a tailor and a Jewish Tom Joad. (Sounds like a joke, huh?) Re’s domineering Jewish mother is over-the-top—what else could she be? She may be a cliché, but she’s a funny cliché. And Re gets the audience howling.
OK, Sherman flirts with stereotype: the guilt-tripping Jewish mother, the blonde, buxom shikse, and all that. My funny bone tells me you can’t have comedy without a few stereotypes. And without comedy, our hero’s journey would be deadly dull.
Isaac finds no big answer at the end of his journey. That seems to be the answer—which sounds like a fortune cookie wisdom. What does it mean to be a Jew? If you keep asking the question, you’re Jewish. Something like that.
But truth always sounds like a fortune cookie. Unless you actually take the journey and earn it. This journey is a long, strange trip and a funny one. You get a lot of laughs and something to think about. Hey, you even get a reading list.