nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 2, 2010
Jacob's House, a new play by August Schulenberg, is a retelling of the Biblical story of Jacob, set in America from the Revolutionary War through the present. It takes place in what appears to be the attic of the eponymous house, where Dinah and Joe, the two surviving children of Jacob, have come for some private discussion following the funeral of their father, Jacob.
Joe, who is much younger than his sister, is unaware of many of the facts about their late father. Dinah relates stories from their family's past, in which occupation she is soon joined by Tamar, their sister-in-law, who has been running Jacob's business. What unfolds is mostly faithful, in outline (though with some exceptions), to the original tale. Jacob, abetted by his mother Rebecca, tricks his older brother Esau out of his birthright and his father's blessing. After Isaac dies, Jacob falls in love with a woman named Rachel, but he is tricked into marrying her older sister Leah. Jacob becomes wealthy and powerful, and on a fateful night—in the scene that ends the play's first act—he wrestles a divine being (an angel?) and becomes unstoppable, a man no one can resist or oppose.
In the play, Jacob's blessings—hard won from his father and from Leah and Rachel's father Laban—are given physical shape as amulets worn around his neck. His three survivors struggle for control over these, and also over a black diamond that had once been Dinah's and, more pressingly, the house that their father lived in.
Schulenberg maps the Biblical tale onto an American one about manifest destiny and irrepressible capitalist conquest. He gives his characters almost supernatural longevity, with Jacob's life spanning the period from our country's founding 'til at least World War I. Some of the changes Schulenberg has made to the story puzzled me, chiefly the inclusion of Tamar as one of Jacob's presumptive heirs (in Genesis, Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Jacob's fourth son, Judah). Interestingly, in Jacob's House the women Dinah and Tamar are cagey and courageous in service of their own interests while Joe (Joseph) is passive and naive and all of his brothers are virtually absent from the tale.
Jacob's House is staged by Kelly O'Donnell on a vivid, detailed set (by Jason Paradine) with the audience seated on opposite ends of the playing area. The play moves quickly and the transitions between the contemporary story of the three heirs and the numerous flashbacks are well-realized. The narrative's main characters—Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Joe, Dinah, and Tamar—are portrayed by single actors, while all of the other characters are played by four ensemble members (Johnna Adams, Bianca LaVerne Jones, Anthony Wills, Jr., and Isaiah Tanenbaum). Matthew Archambault as Jacob and Zack Calhoon as Joe registered strongest with me; Jane Lincoln Taylor's forceful portrayal of Dinah is memorable but didn't always seem to be of a piece with the rest of the company's work. (This could be intentional, by the way.)
Schulenberg has talked about the unorthodox origin of this play (a program note indicates that the play was written in a weekend). It's an audacious and intriguing achievement, but when I left the theatre I didn't feel fully sure that I understood what the playwright wanted me to understand from this work. The analogy presented is an interesting one, but I found myself thinking hard about the differences between being chosen by God to found a nation, as the Bible tells us Jacob was, and deciding more or less on your own that God sanctions all your actions, as this American Jacob seems to do.