Rachel Stein’s dad, Arthur (Adam Heller), after 9/11, had a freak out beyond everyone else’s freak out, but he had a certifiable right to it: One of the infamous planes flew into his office at the Twin Towers. While Arthur somehow muddled into a stairwell and was shepherded out by a fellow with a flashlight, the 65 employees who worked under him were not so lucky. Since then — and the action of the play takes place in 2003 — Arthur has not changed out of his pajamas and he’s starting to, well, stink.
Rachel Stein’s mom, Sylvia (Amy Aquino), has gone one better in the loopy department. A lifelong Jew, she has allowed Jesus (Ryan Shams) into her heart and, not only her heart, but into her living room where her Savior follows her around like a combination puppy and Jeeves, handing her coffee and nodding approvingly over every bon mot she appropriates from Matthew and Corinthians. “Thank you, Jesus,” she says when he performs any one of a number of practical favors, her gratitude receiving a laugh from the audience every time she utters it.
So how is 16-year-old Rachel (Audrey Lynn Weston) coping with this parental insanity, itself springing out of an insane world? Well, in a sense, Rachel’s rebellion is destined to be the same whether her parents are the fatally addled Arthur and Sylvia, or Ward and June Cleaver. Her hormones, intensity and keen intelligence find refuge in Goth apparel and an attitude of “don’t mess with me.” She does wish with all her heart — and stomach — that her parents would actually go out and buy food for the starkly empty kitchen cabinets. Is that too much for a growing teen to ask?
Meanwhile there’s one more nut to fold into this fruitcake batter: 16-year-old Nelson (Ryan Spahn) has just moved into the neighborhood. He has a crush on Rachel with enough thermonuclear power to break through her belligerence and light up a city grid. The only drawback to Nelson as an object of girl teen lust is that he wears a white-and-gold, high collar Elvis jump-suit day and night, a comfort item culled from the untimely death of his mother. (When his first diminutive Elvis costume was taken from him at a tender age, he went to kindergarten in his underwear; bigger and bigger white and gold suits have been provided for him ever since.) This causes poor Nelson to be constantly hectored and beaten by some of the boys at school, but it makes no difference: the costume keeps Nelson’s fear at bay, just as Arthur fights fear with agoraphobia, Sylvia with Jesus, and Rachel with black tunics, hostility and weed.
Nelson woos Rachel with a collection of Stephen Hawking’s essays. What better way to break through the logjam of her life than to open her mind to black holes, worm holes and quantum gravity? Rachel is so hooked that the next time she smokes pot outside her locker, Stephen Hawking himself (Ryan Shams) appears in his famous wheelchair to dish on the Big Bang with her.
Crazy, big-hearted Nelson starts the domino effect of humans affecting humans. When Arthur helps the boy with the Torah portion for his three-years-deferred bar mitzvah, the first membrane of the older man’s depression dissolves. Before you know it he’s actually getting dressed to go out shopping. Soon, Oh miracle of miracles!, he’s making waffles and Reuben sandwiches for the family. Next he goes to work winning back his wife from her constant proselytizing to repent and get ready for eternal life. He tells her, “I’m a lost cause for eternity, but can we be together now?”
And speaking of eternity, the heat is on when Sylvia decides Jesus has hinted He’s penciled in the Rapture for Wednesday. (For anyone unaware of what the Rapture entails, born again Christians believe some day soon all saved souls will go pouf! and be lofted skywards, while the rest of us sinners will languish here on earth where Satan will reign as global dictator, and if you thought Hitler was bad... ).
Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play End Days was awarded the American Theatre Critics Association Citation in March of this year. The play premiered in October 2007 at Florida Stage and quickly vaulted into what the National New Play Network calls a “rolling world premier,” meaning it debuted in several venues at the same time. This included a December production at the Phoenix Theatre where the management encouraged audience members to attend in either pajamas or Goth attire. The Vineyard Playhouse, which specializes in New England premiers, is performing that service for End Days now.
Director Claudia Weill, who has written and directed for movies and television since the 1970s (Girlfriends, It’s My Turn, thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, among many, many other credits), burnishes the gold of the talented cast. Mr. Heller is hilarious as he morphs from the Pacino hoarse-voiced recluse to the ultimate loving yiddische papa. Ms. Aquino keeps a lid on Sylvia’s panic for only a few comic moments at a time; her underlying anger — also hilarious — spouts up like the biggest geyser at Yellowstone, and Ms. Aquino can bellow like the best of them, Janice Joplin included.
Ms. Weston beautifully portrays Rachel as a budding genius trapped in an anguished teen; all will be well, we sense on the deepest level, because the girl is sane and loved, and the combination’s a keeper. Mr. Spahn is a thoroughly engaging Nelson.
Mr. Shams turns in wacky cameos as both Jesus and Stephen Hawking. One thing this reviewer misses, however, is the dialect coaching formerly furnished the playhouse by the late theatre diva, Louise Guerin. Ms. Guerin would have had Mr. Shams’s Hawking enunciating with the crisp British syllables of his Oxford background that we’ve come to associate with the brilliant cosmologist almost as much as his wheelchair.
Off Broadway lighting designer Fred J. Hancock supervised this production’s lights, as he’s done for many playhouse productions in the past. Mr. Hancock pulls out all stops with thunder and lightning effects and even the jolt of a passing tornado. Also lending their abilities to this production are Kate Hancock, with a background in Mirror Rep in New York, the Falmouth Playhouse, and the O’Neil Theatre Center, as production and properties manager; Christine Lomaka, of the Groundlings, Shakespeare Theatre and the Houston Grand Opera, as stage manager; and longtime playhouse hand Geneva Monks as administrative assistant.
Jim Novack, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center, on sound design is also able to weigh in with storm and tornado action, lobbing a few shocks to audience members in their seats. Noavakay Wibel as costume designer had some fun with Goth garb, Jesus robes, Elvis gear, and the normal wardrobe for the highly abnormal Steins.
Playhouse veteran set designer Stephen M. Zablotny set designer and master carpenter Paul Munafo once more get a chance to strut their ingenious stuff with a set that has to serve as the Stein apartment, a high school cafeteria and locker room, and a supermarket. Playhouse producer and artistic director M.J. Munafo again scores in bringing a big time winner, with all the trimmings, to the summer schedule.
End Days runs until August 9. For dates and times, call the box office at 508-696-6300 or see calendar listings in Vineyard Week or online at mvgazette.com.