You are an employee of a nameless Scandinavian furniture store. You work in the disorienting maze of aisles where every Swedish-labeled item is stocked. You are tasked with putting together displays of all the furniture. You hear your supervisor’s voice, but have never actually met her. You were given an employee manual when you were hired, and are urged to make your own checklist.
This is the world of The God Project, a fabulous new play Steve and I saw in center city last night. It is the latest offering of 1812 Productions, a long running Philadelphia theatre troupe known for its pungent satire and lighthearted musical revues. In recent years, 1812 has tackled grittier material, led by co-founder Jen Childs.
Jen and fellow performer Sean Close had arrived at a rehearsal for another production, with the exact same break time reading material: a book by theologian Richard Rohr. Wow, what were the odds? Turns out, they are both PK’s (Pastor’s Kids), their childhoods marked by their lives as offspring of church leaders. A series of conversations led to the writing of this show.
The curtain rises on aisle after aisle of cardboard boxes, each containing a piece of knocked down furniture. The night shift workers, Drew and Sheila, are tasked with assembling displays. Aside from their background as pastor’s children, they could not be more dissimilar. Drew shuns the church and organized religion entirely; Sheila hangs cross necklaces on cardboard cutouts and keeps a prayer list as part of her daily “to do’s”-and Drew is soon added to her list. Drew questions everything he was raised with; Sheila worked selflessly for 30 years at her father’s church before the new pastor fired her—and bears no grudge.
As the evening progresses, Drew and Sheila spar on the subjects of inspiration, miracles, even the way to approach the voluminous manual (Bible?) the employees are given, which Drew hasn’t even read. Drew is currently homeless, living in display bedrooms while trying to hit it big as a singer/songwriter; Sheila begs God for a sign about her calling. God is portrayed as an ebullient African American woman who regularly bursts into song, and appears randomly to our protagonists.
Eventually, Drew urges Sheila to apply to seminary, and he takes a leap of faith to write and perform some new musical material. What becomes of these two misfit companions? Are they doomed to put “Bjorns” together for eternity, or does life offer more? What I loved (beside the numerous inside church jokes) was the subtle movement of the two main characters toward a center point of understanding—Sheila becomes less didactic, and Drew opens his mind and heart a bit.
I will never enter IKEA again without seeing the store as metaphor for the crazy spiritual journey we each take. We are, every one of us, God Projects: sometimes lost, unprepared to put it all together, puzzling over a manual in a foreign language. But determined, by the grace of God, to succeed.