Sound designer Nick Keenan has done his homework. This is the first time where I've nearly crapped my pants due to a theatrical sound effect.
Keenan, who is responsible for the explosive thunder claps that signal the approaching End of Days in Deborah Zoe Laufer's aptly titled End Days, should feel mighty content with himself. It's a powerful moment that makes you want to start repenting on the spot.
Or soil yourself. Either/or.
The rest of End Days, which is receiving its Chicago premiere at Next Theatre Company, doesn't quite have the gut-punching impact of this moment, but that's not Laufer's intention. Rather, her script takes a lighthearted, fresh look into the ideas that make up evangelical religion, physics, the Rapture, and belief in general.
Laufer, herself a science-loving atheist, never lets these big topics overpower, and she achieves this by creating relatable, likeable and flawed characters who are all searching for some sort of meaning. Aren't we all?
The Steins have moved from Manhattan to an unnamed suburban town, following the events of 9/11. Sylvia Stein (a tightly wound Laura T. Fisher) is a former Jew-turned-atheist who has recently discovered Jesus in a major way, and thinks her family - a depressed, out-of-work husband (William Dick) and a cynical, Goth-wearing teenage daughter, Rachel (Carolyn Faye Kramer) - should, too. Especially since Jesus has told her first hand the End of Days is coming...on Wednesday.
While Sylvia is focused on converting her family and saving the neighborhood, her daughter is being pursued by Nelson Steinberg (the bird-like Adam Shalzi), an endearingly awkward teenager who dresses like Elvis and has developed a major crush on Rachel. During his encounters with Rachel, he loans her a book on physics by Stephen Hawking. The book - and Mr. Hawking himself - have a deep impact on Rachel. In addition, acting like a savior in his own right, Nelson's eccentric behavior and intense curiosity serves as a catalyst for helping the Steins rebuild their fragmented household.
One of the many bright spots in Laufer's script is the appearance of Jesus and Stephen Hawking as sounding boards for Sylvia and Rachel's neuroses. Joseph Wycoff plays both Christ and Mr. Hawking with hip flair, which leads to priceless moments such as Jesus bringing Sylvia a venti Starbucks coffee, to which she replies nonchalantly, "Oh, thank you, Jesus," or, as Hawking, navigating around Andre LaSalle's off-kilter set in his motorized wheelchair and noting, "Your house isn't very handicap accessible." However, beyond a sight gag, the use of these two highly respected figures in such a way illustrates that belief - be it science or religion-based - helps us navigate life's struggles and uncertainties.
The cast, under the assured hand of director Shade Murray, handles Laufer's quirky script with honesty and straightforwardness. Fully embodying the evangelical side, Fisher is standout as Sylvia. The love she has for her family is apparent, and regardless of your own religious beliefs, you can only empathize as she struggles with the guilt that she might not be able to convert her family before the sounding of the Rapture trumpets.
There are some weak spots. Laufer's script is rather choppy in the first act and only really finds its footing when the Steins (and Nelson) reluctantly prepare for the End as Sylvia struggles to have them each repent.
Speaking of the end, Laufer seems a bit hesitant about the play's conclusion. I can count at least two times when I incorrectly thought it was all over. But when it does finally finish, we learn that unexpected miracles do, in fact, happen. You just have to open your heart and your mind.
End Days plays through November 29 at the Next Theatre Company 927 Noyes Street, Evanston, Ill. For more information, visit www.nexttheatre.org