'Rapture' is good fodder for apres-play

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By Doug Deuchler

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The new 16th Street Theater in Berwyn does a bang-up job mounting strong shows that may make you squirm. Their latest production, Accidental Rapture by Eric Pfeffinger, is, as the ads say, "a comedy about faith, friendship, and the end of the world." It depicts the culture wars currently raging amongst us — the increasing polarization between the left and religious conservatives.

Director Kevin Christopher Fox smartly directs this tale of a contemporary crisis of faith, effectively heightening the energy as we focus on two couples, one atheist, the other born-again Christian. In a way, it's an allegory for the political and religious debate raging in our current presidential election year.

Paul (Niall McGinty) and Richard (Rob Fagin) start out as good friends in grad school. Paul is dating Amy (Laura Shatkus) while Richard is living with a free spirit named Lydia (Stephanie Diaz). The two couples spend a lot of time together, hanging out in Hyde Park, drinking Rolling Rock and playing Euchre. Though Richard squirms whenever someone takes the Lord's name in vain, the two guys share a passion for a gothic punk rock band and seem like BFF (Best Friends Forever.)

Fast forward 15 years. The former college chums are in their mid-30s now but their lives have taken very different paths. Lydia is still "out there" but she is no longer with Richard. He's now married to Kim (Erin Myers), an earnest evangelical. This religious couple, expecting their first child, have devoted their lives to serving God.

Act I, filled with blistering dialogue and biting satire, moves swiftly. Both couples are flawed. Yet they strain to rekindle their friendship. There's a church basement baby shower planned for Kim. So Paul and Amy arrive with their 12-year-old daughter Greta (Catherine Stegemann), planning to stay for what may be an awkward weekend, since they are convinced "Christianity is pretty much based on superstitious crackpot stories."

Can outspoken Amy, a feminist art history professor, keep from dropping her frequent "f-bombs" for 48 hours? She struggles to get all the cursing out of her system. She and Paul are still close with Richard's former live-in girlfriend Lydia. They recognize Richard and Kim's distrust of popular culture but decide to put their differences aside and not even bring up hot-button topics like evolution or same-sex marriage. However, they do present the creationist couple with a pointed gift for their soon-to-be-born infant: a baby quilt decorated with images of dinosaurs.

Paul, a philosophy professor, is amazed by his former buddy's current conservatism and church-oriented lifestyle. "What happened?" Paul wonders out loud. "You've changed too much or I haven't changed enough?"

But Greta is drawn to the couple. Will professional academics Paul and Amy's bright, inquisitive young daughter become brain-washed by her God-fearing hosts?

Act I ends with Judgment Day — the unexpected, sudden Rapture — while Paul and Amy are still spending the weekend in the home of their fundamentalist friends. The End of the World is a crescendo of bright light, booming angelic music, and dazzling visual effects created by lighting designer Mac Vaughey and sound man Barry Bennett.

We seem to live in an era of increasing forecasts of the Apocalypse. There have been several predictions of doom recently and now we're marching through 2012, the year the ancient Mayans purportedly said would be our very last.

The cast is strong and convincing. The direction is tight and the actors are always focused and credible. Fagin and Myers, who might come off as easy targets for mockery, are convincingly sincere as the religious pair.

Stegemann is impressive as the little girl. I met her mother in the aisle between the acts; she told me her daughter really enjoys being part of this play, which "says so much."

The first act is tight and blistering. Act 2 has a different pace and tone. Through a scriptural technicality there are some surprising developments.

But the mood and author's intent definitely gets blurry in the second half. So see Accidental Rapture with someone who likes talk after experiencing a show. This thought-provoking comedy provides great fodder for post-play discussion.

Some brief bits are played in the aisle, in the midst of the audience. There are hundreds of tiny shimmering lights overhead.

The set, designed by Kurt Sharp, is able to flexibly accommodate several locations by simple rearrangement of furniture. The stage manager is Jennifer Aparicio.

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