Talk to a Jew about religion and God is the least likely topic to come up. Jews talk plenty about law and liturgy, holidays and rituals, culture, food, anti-Semitism, Israel, the Holocaust and history. But God?
Playwright Helen Murray Pafumi’s new work, “Redder Blood,” deals boldly and baldly with belief in God in ways that rarely arise in a typical conversation. The winner of this year’s national Jewish Plays Project playwriting contest as the best new Jewish play, “Redder Blood” is making its world premiere at The Hub Theatre in Fairfax, where Pafumi is its artistic director and co-founder. Running through July 31, the play is co-produced by the JCC of Northern Virginia. Tightly constructed and smartly conceived, “Redder Blood” asks essential questions about belief in a contemporary 21st century way.
Sadie hears and talks to God. No, she’s not crazy. Nor prophetic. She’s a typical millennial managing overbearing parents, nosy siblings and the indignities of the dating world. Her conversations with God are friendly chats. They joke, commiserate, advise and, most interestingly, need each other.
At home with the family, Sadie’s mom or ima, an Israeli artist, and dad, a recent convert to Islam, clash not over religion but over a waning marriage and her father’s unrepentant infidelities. And what interfaith family couldn’t use a rabbi in its midst?
Brother Aaron fits the bill as the most unorthodox of rabbis with his irreverent and less-than-holy quoting of the Torah and Talmud and his penchant to date non-Jews, shiksas as he calls them, and the blonder the better. All of Pafumi’s characters are richly drawn and she provides them with moments of sharp wit and moments of serious introspection.
Unfortunate though is that the Hub cast really is not up to the task of carrying Pafumi’s smart repartee into a place that mines both the laughs and the tears infiltrating Sadie’s life as she wrestles with the challenges of her parents’ disintegrating marriage and her own belief system and identity in a God-given and created universe.
The voice of God here is not only the one who speaks with authority, but the strongest most believable presence in this taut 95-minute intermissionless evening. Dawn Ursula remains unseen, but heard in an otherworldly way throughout as God, or at least Sadie’s auditory imagining of Her. For this is a 21st-century God, created in, by and for Sadie is feminine. She counsels, advises, supports and tells groan-worthy jokes to her believer during Sadie’s moments of contemplative need.
A backdrop of seven white quilted panels on which projections, designed by Patrick Lord, allows the play to unfurl easily on Kristen Morgan’s spare set. Morgan uses just a few movable chairs and tables in the intimate Hub Theatre space to create indoor and outdoor scenes.
It’s the acting, alas, that disappoints; the script soars. Aside from the rich and expressive Ursula as God, none of the rest of the six cast can fully immerse themselves in the wittiest moments to draw out the needed laughs the script demands. Jenna Sokolowski as Sadie plays her for sincerity. As little sister Sarah, Megan Graves overmilks the mischievous sister card. Carlos Saldana is hardly believable, or funny, as Sadie’s brother the rabbi, which is particularly disappointing because Pafumi has given him a great comic list of family memories to recite that simply falls flat.
As the matriarch Ada, Vanessa Bradchulis is unconvincing as either a Jewish mother or an Israeli mother; even the way she offers salads and sandwiches sounds too bland. As father Sam/Sahm, Michael Kramer is simply too bland to be believable, while Jonathan Feuer as Sadie’s love interest Spencer barely registers shock at the zaniness of Sadie’s family.
The title “Redder Blood” derives from a midrashic story and Pafumi weaves many Jewish cultural and religious references, including allusions to the lovely opening reference to the biblical creation story. Alas, as deeply infused with ideas of Jewish belief and religious idealism as “Redder Blood” is, the cast and director Gregg Henry lack a Jewish soul and spirit.
“Redder Blood,” by Helen Murray Pafumi, through July 31 at The Hub Theatre at The New School, 9341 Silver King Court., Fairfax. Tickets $20-$30. Visit thehubtheatre.org.