In a polished work of stage comedy masquerading as a theatrical work-in-progress, American writer James Sherman ponders what it is to be a Jew.
Semi-autobiographical and set in 1977, The God of Isaac revolves around Isaac Adams, a non-observant Chicago Jew whose conscience and faith-identity is shaken into the forefront of his mind with the news that the National Socialist Party of America is planning a march in Skokie, Illinois, the majority Jewish suburb he grew up in.
The prospect of neo-Nazis parading through streets where Holocaust survivors live and work fills Isaac with disquiet. But what can he do about it? He hasn’t set foot in a synagogue since his Bar Mitzvah and lives a goyische life with his non-Jewish partner Shelly, a model. Being Jewish, Isaac tells us, means “no more than being right-handed.”
As the Neo-Nazi drumbeat becomes louder (the play speaks of real events), Isaac increasingly feels the tug of his roots. At the urging of a Hasidic Jew he meets on the street, he ties on the Tefillin for the first time in years. He reconnects with his old rabbi. He asks questions of his tailor, an Auschwitz survivor. He begins to read key texts and is intrigued by the story of Moses.
Soon, Isaac’s view of his domestic arrangements starts to shift, leading him to reject Shelly’s gift of Oscar Mayer salami (not kosher) and wonder aloud if she would consider conversion.
It’s enough to say that this lady’s not for turning.
More reviews? Subscribe to our newsletter
Sherman’s humour is some way off the cutting edge (the play is 40 years old and showing its age) and his female characters are stereotypical, but this Shalom Theatre production (directed by Moira Blumenthal) is robust, appealingly sharp and consistently funny.
Key to the success of the production is Blumenthal’s casting of Lloyd Allison-Young, a nimble actor with a gift for playing young men with a great deal to say. He’s strongly supported by Claudia Ware as Shelly.
Alexis Fishman brings warmth to the role of ex-girlfriend Chaya, whose wistful epistolary contributions lead Isaac to consider what might have been.
Tim McGarry turns up in a variety of guises. Each has a gravelly charm. Annie Byron is warmly funny as Isaac’s mother, who expresses her disappointment from the third row of the auditorium for much of the show.
Sherman punctuates the storytelling with short Jewish spins on American classics ranging from Huckleberry Finn to On the Waterfront. Fishman’s musical theatre chops grace the riffs on My Fair Lady and The Wizard of Oz.
Set and costumes (Hugh O’Connor), lights (Martin Kinnane) and music (Tegan Nicholls) complete the package.
If the central question – what does it mean to be a Jew? – doesn’t resonate with you, then maybe the secondary ones Sherman poses in The God of Isaac might.
To what extent can we ever cut ourselves off from our roots?
Should the right to free speech apply to those who trade in hate speech?
At what point do we turn disquiet into action?