Directed by Michael Parva
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“I’m speaking of the journey of your soul.” Pope Augustine in “The Road to Damascus”
It is easy to get trapped in the seductive Siren-like lure of reality when watching Tom Dulack’s “The Road to Damascus” currently running at 59E59 Theaters as part of its innovative and successful 5A Series of plays. The events of the play – a future terrorist bombing of Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the hawkish response of the new third-party President – play out in a powerful albeit predictable way that satisfies the audience and leaves it members thinking deeply and asking rich questions about the dystopian future of the United States in an environment of seemingly escalating global anti-American sentiment. How can the United States successfully combat world-wide terrorism? Will the terrorists ultimately win out? Is anyone safe from the scourge of international terrorism? But it is in the rich layer of metaphor that lies beneath the play’s plot that the magic of “The Road to Damascus” resides and proves Tom Dulack to be a skilled and worthy wordsmith.
The perpetrator of the horrific attack seems to be an Isis mutant self-named the Army of God and The United States is prepared to lay full blame on Syria and plans to obliterate Damascus in retaliation. Hoping to avoid the catastrophic event, the Vatican’s first black Pope (played with calm distinction by the brilliant Mel Johnson Jr.) plans to fly to Damascus and act as a human shield against the planned attack. It should not be left unnoticed that this new Pope is named Augustine (unfortunately mispronounced by everyone throughout the play – the stress is on the second syllable of the name, the way the Saint liked it) and that his journey is – like Saint Paul’s – to Damascus, the journey which resulted in Saul’s conversion to Paul and to following Christ. It should also not be left unnoticed that the there is a parallel between the Isis “Army of God” and Pope Augustine’s “Army of God.”
The real power of Mr. Dulack’s play resides in the ability of what is ultimately deemed good and righteous and lovely to convict protagonist Dexter Hobhouse (played with delicious moral ambivalence by Rufus Collins) that his “soul [is] in conflict, in terrible conflict with itself” and convert the failed diplomat to follow “what is good and what is true in his nature.” It is Hobson’s resignation from the State Department and his decision to follow Pope Augustine into Damascus that is at the heart of this demanding play and the discerning audience member has to carefully dodge the temptation to get caught up in the surface conflicts of the complex and multilayered characters.
The competent and committed ensemble cast – under Michael Parva’s meticulous direction – delivers authentic and believable performances that deftly support the main conflict of the play. Joseph Adams plays the discontented U.S. Undersecretary of State Ted Bowles with palpable physicality, especially in his scenes with NSA affiliate Bree Benson played with irascible charm by Liza Vann. Equally petulant is Benson’s doppelganger Cardinal Mederios played with a holy wickedness (watch that twitching right hand!) by Robert Verlaque. Rooting for the protagonist are his college mate Bishop Roberto Guzman and his longsuffering girl friend news correspondent Nadia Kirlenko. These characters are played by Joris Stuyck and Larisa Polonsky respectfully: both actors bring remarkable definition to their somewhat difficult roles and enliven their characters with charm and endearing depth.
Brittany Vasta’s clean, sleek, and symmetric set belies the asymmetry of the play’s core and serves the action of the play perfectly. Graham Kindred’s lighting is subtle and inventive and Quentin Chiappetta’s original music and sound design weave magic into the dramatic mix. Lux Haac’s costume design is serviceable and appropriately understated.
Perhaps Oscar Wilde was spot on when he wrote that “no good deed goes unpunished.” In the last moments of the play what appears to be the beginning of a new era of understanding between Christians and Muslims becomes catastrophic and incomprehensible. The soul’s journey to redemption is never an easy one and often does end cataclysmically; however, if Bishop Augustine, Dexter, and Roberto are correct, it is the journey itself that is redemptive and enduring. And if Saint Augustine is correct, that journey is in itself the cornerstone of The City of God.