Nancy S. Heiden's new play Members of the Tribe is an exceptional examination of the conventional standards of religion as current society has come to know them. The play deals with two men engaged in their own personal renaissance -- one toward God and the other toward himself -- as they both come to grips with the hardship of choosing between one's true happiness and one's chosen faith. This Columbus-born production was remarkable and expressed a universality beyond its narrow religious subject matter.
Director Frank Barnhart, whose credits include heading up the respected Columbus National Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival, returned to New York to direct an accomplished cast of actors in a fluid style that was engaging from the first moment.
Gabriel Vaughn played the role of Jonathon, a young gay man who is searching for spirituality through his conversion to Judaism. Steven (David Latham) is his rabbi/teacher who becomes his friend and, over time, comes to terms with the secret he has kept for many years.
Franny Silverman shone brightly as Barb, Steven's bubbly secretary, who sees and hears everything down to the slightest detail. Her stage time was so rich with fun energy it seemed regrettable that she had to leave in order to progress the plot of the play. The same could be said of hilarious Jeffrey Landman's character of Jeff, best friend to the converting protagonist. Not the least bit interested in religious conversation, he plays the significant role of "devil's advocate" who cannot understand his friend's attraction to Judaism. The comic actor's moments at the café were masterful.
Elaine Miracle played the wife of the rabbi. She tries hard to seduce him so that he can relax and enjoy their few moments alone. Latham did a great job of behaving frigidly toward his wife, showing only a hint of discomfort veiled with piousness. When Latham revealed his character's newfound homosexuality it came as a surprise.
Vaughn was full of youthful spirit and enthusiasm and was adorable to watch onstage. His character earnestly frequents cafes in the Chelsea district with the Torah in hand and never really apologizes for being gay. It's a refreshing take by the playwright. Heiden gave Vaughn colorful and informative (for those not well-versed in Judaism) monologues, and the performer reveled in them.
An uplifting aspect of the writing is that it is extremely contemporary, although the show is laden with biblical references. Cindy Leland did an extraordinary job as the cantor, singing beautiful songs between most scenes and keeping us grounded in the time and place and thought of the play. Barnhart chose Leland (who is a cantor in real life) to bring the play the realism it so successfully displayed. The lighting during the scene changes was haunting and well-designed. The costumes were modern and telling. The simple set design was glorious.
At a time when Americans are reviewing the importance of religion in their lives and how it compares with modern standards of living, it is inspiring to see plays that cater to the needs of our time.
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Copyright 2002 Jade Esteban Estrada