nytheatre.com review by Matthew Freeman
August 15, 2010
Stop me if you've heard this joke: a Jewish girl, a Muslim girl, and a Christian girl walk into a dorm room. No? Never mind, the punchline isn't very funny. Abraham's Daughters, which has an identical premise, isn't very funny either. It's a serious-minded look at the emotional lives of three freshmen women in college, as they wrestle with their religious and social identities. It's an odd blend of dialectical argument, a religious studies course, and A Different World.
Sarah, a practicing young Jewish woman, moves into her new dorm room to find that her roommate is a Muslim from Dearborn, Michigan named Ranya. Across the hall is a blonde Southern party girl named Kate, with an evangelical Christian upbringing. Add to the mix Sarah's friend from camp, Will, whose lapsed faith has led him to atheism (ahem, Realism). He's handsome and charming and, being the only guy in the play, causes tension among the three new friends.
The story of the play is fairly pedestrian, serving as a framework on which playwright Elissa Lerner hangs her hypothetical social experiment. Lerner's characters wander on some well-trod territory (sex, abortion, dating), used mostly to expose their differences and similarities. A story that doesn't break new ground doesn't disqualify a play from being successful on its own terms, and Abraham's Daughters does feature some genuine and educational moments.
Lerner is clearly knowledgeable about her subject (she's got a background in journalism and religious studies), but that that doesn't always translate into successful drama. Her characters can sound like mouthpieces for the writer—moments when the young characters appear to deftly dissect their religious differences in the midst of high emotion, for example. There's also a question of stakes, as the audience is expected to become emotionally invested in friendships that are in their infancy.
Also, subtly, Lerner's own biases show up throughout the play. For example, Sarah—a proxy for the playwright?—rails against her friend Will's lapsed Judaism, and often looks askance at whomever misunderstands her religious practices. When her Muslim friend Rayna, though, wears a head scarf or refuses sex before marriage, Sarah treats these as religious hangups. Kate, the Christian, is the least persuasive character, written as someone who barely understands her own faith, and has lived without curiosity towards others. Both Sarah and Rayna are practically religious scholars compared to the Southern Christian—a far too easy posture for the playwright.
Director Niccolo Aeed's staging is utilitarian—nothing goes wrong, but the staging is pretty straightforward and scene changes are handled in awkward silence. Aeed's work, though, is best shown in the performances of the actors, all of whom acquit themselves well.
The best of the bunch is Dea Julien, whose performance as Rayna is natural and convincing. Keely Flaherty turns in a deceptively strong performance in the difficult role of Kate. Aryeh Lappin handles his complicated role with charm; and Rebecca LaChance is commanding as the central character, Sarah.
Taken as a whole, Abraham's Daughters has the ambition to approach big subjects with a youthful eye. Even if it's intermittently successful as drama, the production itself is well-grounded by excellent actors, and features worthy content for audiences that are interested in the subject of religion.