Last week I was privileged to see a performance of End Days written by Deborah Zoe Laufer and directed by Claudia Weill at the Martha's Vineyard Playhouse. This quirky family comedy underscores the vulnerabilities and aspirations of human beings who have survived trauma and even the threat of annihilation. I laughed with the characters that include a pious and ever patient Jesus and Stephen Hawking as the marijuana-induced hallucination of Rachel, a disaffected, black-clad teen. There is Nelson, the kid who won't venture out without sporting his Elvis Presley white sequined jumpsuit. That item of course invites derision at school -- and even physical abuse.
One of the play's anchors is Rachel's dad, Arthur Stein. Deeply depressed and in his pajamas for most of the play, he lives the only way he can with the trauma of being a 9/11 survivor. The play hinges on the belief of his wife, Sylvia, that Armageddon, the Rapture, is only days away. What ensues is both poignantly redemptive and often hilariously funny.
The next morning I awoke wanting to explore the play in the context of belief systems -- how they can liberate, but also imprison us in the very patterns we hope will save us. For instance,while Mrs. Stein's focus is entirely on "saving her family" as the end of the world approaches, demanding their repentance so that they can be her traveling companions to eternal life, small miracles of the human persuasion are occurring unbeknownst to and all around her. She is blind to the living even as she seeks eternal life -- a mirror to the moments that we too are stubbornly blinded by our point of view and miss what we most seek.
Her somnambulant husband, encouraged by Nelson, struggles with even the simplest task of buying groceries. Mrs. Stein is too busy proselytizing to attend to him or perhaps she feels so powerless to help him that she can only bury herself in her work. But Arthur becomes the real breadwinner again by the simple act of buying cereal for his daughter's breakfast. On the night of the expected Rapture he makes Reuben sandwiches, snuggles with his daughter as they doze off watching "Left Behind". His is the redemptive power of nurture, re- awakened by the hunger around him.
But it is neither the brilliant science of Stephen Hawking nor the patient unconditional love of Jesus that saves this family. Their teachings serve as powerful catalysts to the characters, providing a temporary solution to trauma and terror, something to cling to, to make sense of life, a means to survival in the face of untenable circumstances, but do not ultimately lead to their awakening. The characters, as we humans often do, have simply bought into the philosophies without fully connecting them to daily life, without practice. They live in a perpetual holding pattern, a balm for the pain within, until they almost run out of gas- threatening to re-live the crash that they have just barely survived.
It is the socially awkward Nelson who is the real savior here -- by the force of his own unfailing love and open heart. His compassion for a broken down man is not the grand gesture of a Messiah, but the simple promise to return after school for a lesson in gin rummy and coaching on his Torah portion. The only thing he asks in return is that Mr. Stein do something for himself: go to the grocery store. Nelson is the first to attend Bible services with Mrs. Stein for he finds no inconsistency between evangelical salvation and Torah study. In his guilelessness, while partially motivated by his crush on Rachel and his need for family, he takes in everything that life is offering him. Eventually, with the help of his new-found family, he makes the move to part with the one thing that has both comforted and tortured him- the Elvis suit. It is he who bravely reminds us how easy it is to get used to and then how difficult to remove a torment of our own making.
As the family awaits The End, their twenty four hour vigil is not a dark night of the soul that requires repentance, but rather the incandescent shining of real humans when they loosen their grip on beliefs that separate them from each other. This is real rapture, found in everyday life: the giving and receiving of forgiveness, the acknowledgment of fears and love, the moments of vulnerability, the playful pastime of a game of cards, the perfect gift of food prepared and shared.
I hope others will have the opportunity to see this special play. It begs the question of what we would hold most sacred if we knew the end was near. And it brings to life our broad range of choices, including laughter, and the treasured traveling companions who are there even when we face our own personal Armageddon.
Kay Goldstein, MA teaches meditation and writes poetry, fiction and articles addressing the challenges and joys of daily living and spiritual practice. www.kaygoldstein.com This piece is adapted from an article published in The Martha's Vineyard Gazette, August 1, 2008 www.mvgazette.com
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