Letting Go of God
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 21, 2006
Julia Sweeney is one of my heroes. When she wants to figure something out, she throws herself heart and soul into the process. It might take years, but the journey toward whatever she's seeking will be worth it. And, if we're lucky, she'll chart the whole thing out for us in one of her remarkable solo shows. God Said, "Ha!" was the first; Letting Go of God, playing a too-brief engagement at Ars Nova right now, is the current one. Let's hope Sweeney brings it back for a longer run soon.
The nature of this particular journey is cosmic and essential: Letting Go of God is nothing less than Sweeney's personal wrangling with the Supreme Being. It begins unassumingly enough with Sweeney being visited one day by a pair of young Mormon missionaries, two 19-year-old strangers who tell her that they have a message for her from God. Intrigued in the postmodern way that any self-respecting Saturday Night Live alumna would be, Sweeney lets them in; but the difference between Julia Sweeney and most of the comedians of her generation is that she actually listens to what they have to say. And one of the questions they ask her—Do you believe in your heart that God loves you?—strikes a deep, disturbing chord, that lingers long after she's sent the young Latter-Day Saints away.
Sweeney tells us that if they had asked her whether she felt that God loved her, it wouldn't have been hard to answer. But does she believe this: really, unwaveringly and unconditionally, believe?
And so begins years of questing. It will end, as the title suggests, with Sweeney embracing what she calls a naturalistic view of existence and the universe; along the way, there will be struggles with the Old Testament and New Testament God and with Jesus (at a bible study class led by her local Catholic priest); a hike in the Himalayas, seeking the enlightenment of the Buddha; a foray into science that begins with Darwin and progresses through a host of modern writers; and lots of wrangling with her Catholic family as she finds herself heading toward what feels to them like atheism. Though most of Sweeney's observations are very funny and very pointed, they're always hugely respectful and they're loaded with insight and intelligence. There's no glibness here, just a sincere and humane desire to dig through the dogma and understand our place in the universe.
The story also includes lots of visits with her family; if you saw God Said, "Ha!" then you'll already be familiar with her mother and father, who figure significantly here, as do her siblings, her daughter, and an assortment of boyfriends/significant others. Sweeney's family, we sense, anchors her as she takes on the gigantic, scary questions of this show. Her love for them anchors us.
This is a long show (about two-and-a-half hours); that's a sign not only of Sweeney's thoroughness in her undertaking but also of her generosity as a performer and individual. I don't think many people would have the courage to share the deeply personal journey that's charted in Letting Go of God, let alone the wherewithal. That's what makes Sweeney such a special artist; she really is, as I said, heroic. Wherever she wants to take me next, I'm ready to go.