What do Jesus Christ, Stephen Hawking, 9/11 and Elvis's iconic white jumpsuit all have in common? Well, nothing, except that they each have a pivotal role in End Days, an original play by Deborah Zoe Laufer first read in 2007 at the Missoula Colony and which has garnered national recognition since. The sharp, thought-provoking and heartwarming account of a New York family reeling from the events of September 11 even as they prepare for an impending apocalypse is filled with so much uninhibited imagination and surprising levity that it threatens to overwhelm any theatergoer lucky enough to come across it.
Frequenters of local theater productions often complain about the lack of originality in venues that tend toward safe, well-established material or contemporary creations that feature forced edginess and relevance. It's rare to come across something that is equal parts fresh and honest. Montana Rep Missoula's Days is just such a production. At times it's a profound rumination on the personal truths gleaned from the conflict between science and religion, at others it's a hokey yet uproariously funny character study that takes several cues from old-school television sitcoms like "Family Ties" and "Growing Pains." Days is refreshingly difficult to categorize. The true genius of Laufer's inventive tale lies with the way both of these narrative extremes are informed by the production's characters.
Laufer boldly includes Jesus and Stephen Hawking as symbolic extensions of the spiritual and scientific struggle central to the story. The play's scenes humorously play up the way their surreal interactions with the production's lead characters resemble all-too-familiar relationships. Actor William Updyke pulls double duty here as both of the story's larger-than-life personas and does an excellent job of making their individual contributions to the narrative memorable. His Jesus is appropriately understated, representing a quiet, comforting presence for the family's sweet but fiery matriarch, Sylvia. His Hawking has plenty to say to Goth girl Rachel, until, of course, she decides to "see other astrophysicists."
Extended metaphysical cameos aside, however, the true stars of Days are the philosophically fractured Stein family and the boy that they all, in their own way, let into their steely hearts. That boy is Nelson Steinberg, a jovial, lovestruck student perpetually clad in Elvis's aforementioned dudswhich he clings to as a sort-of garish, bedazzled security blanket in the wake of his parents's recent deaths. Nelson is frequently the target of bullying because of his bizarre wardrobe choice. Erik Montague plays him with an earnest, unflinching optimism that comes across as a tad annoying at first, but you soon realize that his unwavering positivity is entirely the point. Nelson repeatedly recommends Hawking's A Brief History of Time to Rachel. At the same time, he balances studying for his fast approaching bar mitzvah with spreading the word about the impending Rapture alongside Rachel's fanatical, born-again Christian mother. He sees the value in each opposing worldview, no matter how divisive or contradictory.
Adopting Nelson's complex, life-affirming perspective nearly right out of the gate is Rachel's father, Arthur Stein, an ex-World Trade Center office employee haunted by the events that left him the lone survivor of his department. Rick Martino's performance conveys the delicate transformation of Arthur from lost, disconnected couch potato to supportive, sandwich-crafting superdad with the appropriate blend of subtlety, humor and poise. Leah Joki's standout turn as Sylvia Stein is a sight to behold. She's a character that could have easily come across as insufferably preachy, but Joki portrays her as loving, achingly committed and funny. You can't help but root for her even when her family can't understand her quest to save their reluctant souls. And Sylvia's explosive exchanges with her boisterous, questioning daughter, portrayed by a sniping Kate Robischon, feel more than a little true to life.
Jason J. McDaniel's bare-bones set makes creative use of a projector that covers the entire back wall of the stage during sequences where the Stein family checks in with the rest of the world. Seeing exactly what the curious bunch is witnessing on television as they await the end helps further immerse the audience in the world of the play. The authenticity in the way director Eric D. Hersh choreographs the heated family scuffles is in keeping with Laufer's eccentric, cleverly-written personalities. Those worried that the creative potential of local theater productions is nearing its own portentous Day of Judgment can rest easy. End Days just might be the salvation you're looking for.
End Days continues at UM's Masquer Theatre in the PARTV Center Thu., April 19–Sat., April 21, at 7:30 PM nightly. $11 Thu./$16 Fri.–Sat./$6 student rush.