Strap in for a serious two hours and 15 minutes of dark, talky religious drama in David Ives' New Jerusalem, now onstage at Fort Worth's Stage West. But what a great ride it is.
The time, place and subject are set in the lengthy subtitle of the fact-based play: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam. July 27. 1656.
Spinoza, in his early 20s, was a star student who could recite the Jewish Articles of Faith from memory. But his intensive reading had led him to form some revolutionary ideas about religion. If God created nature, then God and nature are one, he said. Therefore, all religions are meaningless. We humans should merely follow the perfect laws of nature and love one another. That's enough.
Those notions were heretical enough to have Spinoza (played by newcomer Garret Storms) called before a committee that included his rabbi (played with spiky menace by Jim Covault), an angry Christian Calvinist (a powerful Russell Dean Schultz) and a high-ranking member of the synagogue named Gaspar (Michael Corolla). They challenged Spinoza and threatened to excommunicate him from the Jewish community and throw him out of Amsterdam. (Which they ultimately did. Spinoza, now regarded as a great philosopher, died in his 40s, having become a lens-grinder in The Hague.)
Little did Spinoza know that his own roommate (Samuel West Swanson) was a spy for the committee. And even Spinoza's own sister (Angela Owen) and Christian girlfriend (Barrett Nash) would show up and testify against him.
Playing out as a taut courtroom drama, New Jerusalem, directed by Stage West Artistic Director Jerry Russell, features standout performances from its cast, particularly Garret Storms in the lead. With the epicene beauty of a young Jeremy Irons, and a way of using his voice and hands that reflects some nice classical theater training, Storms takes the Spinoza character on an arc from flippancy to concern to resignation. It's a brilliant performance holding the center of a difficult piece.
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Scenery by Covault puts the action around a large table within the tall marble columns of a synagogue conference room. Costumes by Michael A. Robinson and Dallas Costume Shoppe are hit and miss. The heavy cloaks and robes are period appropriate, but lace-up men's cap-toe Oxford shoes, such as those worn by men in the cast, didn't exist in the 17th century.
That's the only small detail amiss in a production that otherwise gets everything spot-on. For good theater that takes on big ideas, New Jerusalem is the answer to a prayer.
New Jerusalem continues through January 29 at Stage West, Fort Worth. For tickets, 817-STG-WEST.