“Ode to Joy” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre at the Cherry Lane Theatre (Closed Sunday March 30, 2014)

Written and Directed by Craig Lucas
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“Yes, all who can call at least one soul/ Theirs upon this earth; /But any who cannot must creep tearfully/ Away from our circle.” – From “Ode to Joy” by Friedrich von Schiller, 1785

Soteriology, trying to figure out what it means to be a savior, is a difficult business and for the savior it is often a messy business. Saving others can result in considerable personal sacrifice and somehow subsuming the “sins” of others, even the sins of the whole world, can even result in death. For some reason, some humans just do not want to be saved from themselves and their pain. Fortunately, others do.

At the beginning of Craig Lucas’ “Ode to Joy,” protagonist Adele (Kathryn Erbe) sets the stage for all that follows, asserting that “This is the story of how the pain goes away. Or: How I got out of the way of me and everyone else.” Adele has the uncanny ability to get others to follow her. After meeting Bill (Arliss Howard) in the bar owned by his deceased wife and her brother (Bill lives upstairs), Adele captivates Bill as she earlier on captivates Mala (Roxanna Hope) whose relationship with Adele is chronicled in a series of flashbacks. There is much pain in these relationships and much that leads to redemption.

Lucas is skilled at foreshadowing. Early on, for example, the audience learns that Adele has “all kinds [of] powers.” And Bill lets the audience know that forgiveness will play a pivotal role in “Ode to Joy:” “It’s okay, forgiveness is the key to everything.” Under Lucas’ inventive and careful direction, the ensemble cast delivers powerful performances which delve into the depths of human despair and humanity’s attempts to numb despair’s concomitant searing pain. Mr. Lucas tackles salvation head on and scores.

In the New Testament, the word used for ‘to save’, the root for ‘salvation,’ is the koine (common) Greek word ‘sodzo.’ It is an interesting Greek word which the early church, and apparently Jesus, used to indicate that time-space continuum in which believers dwell after “accepting Jesus into their lives.” Believers were healed, delivered, and protected even from the inevitability of death. What many – perhaps most – Christians do not know is that the early church borrowed this word from its early military use to describe the loud, harsh noises horses made as they swam across dangerous waters – rivers, deep rivers and even seas. As long as the soldiers could hear the snorting, gasping, and snarling of the horses they knew that both they and the horses were ‘safe;’ they were ‘saved from drowning; they had, in essence, achieved ‘salvation’ on the distant shore.

This ‘salvation’ for the early church was achieved on the cross on Golgotha, the place of the skull. According to tradition, two ‘criminals’ were crucified with Jesus, one on his right, the other on his left. Here is how their conversation went: “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

In the final salvific scene of “Ode to Joy,” Adele the ‘Noble One’ (as her name suggests) is working on her most recent painting which is called “Golgotha.” And in her apartment, her place of the skull, are two ‘criminals.” The one on her right is Bill, her ‘resolute protector’ (as his name suggests) and one on her left is Mara, her ‘necklace,’ her perhaps crown of thorns. Adele previously heard from Bill what Jesus “may actually have said” including, “People can kill you but they cannot harm your soul” and “He said he came to bring trouble, not peace.” Now, however, Adele is the savior and she and her cohort of executionees deliver their own words of salvation from their collective brokenness.

After accepting Bill’s proposal of marriage (for the third time), Adele delivers her ode to joy, proclaiming, “I can live with it, I can live with the pain. True joy is acceptance.” And this: “May you find joy. That’s all I’ve got. Love yourself first. Firmly secure your own mask before helping others. Try to forgive.” From her left, Mala shares her words of safety, “Eat well!” And that is the new New Testament, the new gospel, the new mantra of salvation. Soren Kierkegaard (about whom the audience hears much in Mr. Lucas’ play) would agree. In his journals, this great theologian wrote, “What the age needs is not a genius—it has had geniuses enough, but a martyr, who in order to teach men to obey would himself be obedient unto death. What the age needs is awakening.”

In “Ode to Joy,” Craig Lucas gives the audience a martyr for modern times. Adele has had the weight of the world on her shoulders; she has known suffering and pain as well as the cycle of confession, forgiveness, and redemption. And she is able to offer her own ode to joy.