Douglas Lackey almost pulls off the impossible with his The Wayward Daughter of Judah the Prince, a cinematically epic tale set in the century after Jesus’ crucifixion reduced to the size of an off-Broadway theater stage.
I say almost because he can’t quite interweave the factual history with the human element even though both are fascinating. Emotions and relationships vie with lectures on religious sects. Fortunately, the high level of the acting helps humanize the history.
His play transports the audience from second century Palestine to Ephesus then to Rome and finishes off in ancient Alexandria where the title character, Hannah meets her fate.
Hannah’s father, Judah (a commanding Stan Buturla), a high-born Jew in Palestine, is assembling what would become one of the seminal works of Judaism, the Mishnah. His helpmeet is his devoted daughter who slavishly adheres to the many, sometime inscrutable, religious rules and regulations of her religion.
As the play opens Hannah (Jessica Crandall, luminous) is teaching her servant slave Sarah (Amanda Kristin Nichols, adding a welcome note of heat to the play) the stringent laws of behavior on the Sabbath. Hannah is adamant about her adherence to the Scripture, but balks when her father, within his paternal rights, insists on marrying her off to a skittish nobleman, Jonah (Mohammad Saleem who acquits himself well in several contrasting roles).
Jonah’s religious beliefs are diametrically opposed to those of Hannah’s, plus she cannot abide the idea of marrying. Also marriage’s sexual obligations go against her natural inclinations. Her ideal love mate is Sarah with whom she absconds to foreign shores and encounters a spectrum of religious sects and philosophies including Christianity, Gnosticism and Neoplatonism.
Wayward Daughter then walks an uneasy path between drama and didacticism as Hannah and Sarah are confronted with sexual humiliation, angry polemists and hateful mobs. All the while their journey illuminates the madness of conflicting religious philosophies from the world-weary Gnostics to the anti-Christian Hellenists as embodied in the characters of the unsavory Gnostic leader Basilides (Saleem), pagan philosopher Plotinus (Anthon Mondesir) and Christian Bishop Kyril (Mondesir again, displaying his diversity).
It is to the credit of the entire cast—dressed in Anthony Paul-Cavaretta’s period tunics and flowing robes—that Lackey’s sometimes over-the-top dialogue lands credibly.
Two other elements elevate the play: Michael Sirotta’s lovely, mood-enhancing score and Jon DeGaetano’s imaginative scenery which includes large, stage-spanning curtains that cleverly serve as entranceways, sails and even ancient columns. Michael Redman’s moody projections enhance Sirotta’s contributions.
Alexander Harrington directs without the slightest hint of irony. There is no winking at the audience even when Lackey’s lines veer towards Hollywood Bblical epic camp. He makes these characters human even when spouting complex rhetoric.
The Wayward Daughter of Judah the Prince’s combination of earnestness and exoticism make it a happy, if uneven, contribution to the reawakening off-Broadway scene.
The Wayward Daughter of Judah the Prince (through October 10, 2021)
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, in Manhattan
Running time: two hours and 15 minute including one intermission