nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
March 28, 2007
"I'm dying," says Sheila Gold, the cancer-stricken central character of Apostasy. Dr. Julius Strong pauses for a moment and then responds, "Who isn't?"
The inevitability of death, and how that fact drives our need for connection, is the specter that looms over Gino DiIorio's interesting three-character drama, now being presented at Urban Stages.
Sheila, a tough-minded businesswoman struggling against a cancer that will eventually kill her, has retired to a hospice to wait out her days. Her daughter Rachel is single and works at a Planned Parenthood clinic, a job that takes its toll on her. Rachel brings over marijuana to ease her mother's pain, and muffins, which she insists her mother eat. Susan nags Rachel, good-naturedly, about when she's going to find a man (her mother bought her a subscription to a Jewish singles website), and Rachel teases her mother about her love for a television evangelist program. Rachel is testy today because she's just discovered her name has appeared on a list on a website that encourages bombing abortion clinics. Trying not to talk about it, she steers the conversation towards a topic that, predictably, leads towards a fight: money.
Sheila ran her own business, and has a substantial estate, and Rachel has learned from Sheila's lawyer, a friend of hers, that her mother is planning a substantial donation. Sheila is cagey about it, insisting that it is her business alone. Rachel pries, and a fight occurs. Sheila admits that part of the reasoning behind her plan to make the donation is that she has decided to convert to Christianity. People die either with faith or without faith, she says, and she is afraid of suffering through a death without faith. Rachel is horrified, as she views Judaism as part of her identity, and feels as if her mother is changing, abandoning her in small ways before death will force her to abandon her permanently.
Rachel leaves, unable to handle this, and in the door walks Dr. Julius Strong. He is here to speak to Sheila about the donation she has promised, but it soon becomes clear that he has more personal reasons for coming. Sheila and Julius share a bond that deepened over a six-month exchange of letters, and they soon find the gap between a Jewish woman dying of cancer and a black televangelist is smaller than would be expected.
Julius is a curious mixture of egotism (he gives a speech about loving the sound of his own name) and sadness. He can speak eloquently at one moment about his job, to help his congregants believe and be secure in the knowledge that life has meaning, and then bemoan the direction his life has taken. ("I wanted to be Thomas Merton and I wound up being Jimmy Swaggart.") Sheila's delight in him and her passionate search for meaning clearly fascinate him, and their relationship turns friendly, and then rapidly sexual. The next morning they awake together, and their relationship is revealed to Rachel, who is not pleased. Battle lines are drawn after Julius invites Sheila to come live with him in California, and she announces her intention to do so. Rachel believes Julius to be a fake who is in financial trouble and interested only in Sheila's money. Julius claims that Rachel has become used to being needed, and selfishly wants to keep her mother near her to enjoy caring for her, rather than considering Sheila's happiness.
The play delves into the complex issues that surround the death of a parent: independence, the line between parent and child that suddenly becomes blurry, the price of the parent's final moments of happiness versus the child's future. No one in DiIorio's fascinating script operates from black and white motives; love and self interest are closely intertwined. DiIorio sets Sheila up to choose between the happiness she has just found in Julius and the desires of her adult child, but unfortunately in the last moments the script turns to heavy-handed melodrama rather than tackling the questions straight ahead. Still, DiIorio is a skilled and natural writer and the play is thought-provoking and interesting.
All three performances are excellent, particularly Susan O'Connor in the least well-written role as the brittle Rachel. Susan Greenhill brings dignity and spunk to the complex role of Sheila. Harold Surratt, as Strong, runs between being deeply charismatic, such as when he is insisting Sheila throw off her pain and dance, and seeming a little bit uncomfortable. When he appears on screen in William Cusick's excellent video projections as his television persona in short video clips, he is spectacular, and one can easily see why Sheila would find faith and hope in him. Frances Hill's direction is strong and sharp, and makes the most out of a script that occasionally meanders. Roman Tatarowicz's set is perhaps a bit too well-constructed for a hospice; my companion remarked to me that he wouldn't mind living there, and nowhere on stage is there any physical evidence of Sheila's illness.
I feel that DiIorio may have been better served by bringing his play to a close by forcing Sheila to actually confront the issues it brings up rather than resolving the play with plot twists, but he is obviously a talented and fearless writer who should be watched.