Rachel Stein thought her life couldn’t get any worse.
Her father, Arthur, hasn’t gotten dressed or left the house in months. Her mother, Sylvia, talks of nothing but the second coming of Jesus Christ, except when she’s actually conversing with Jesus.
And, now, the new kid at school, who sits behind her in homeroom because his name is Nelson Steinberg, has publicly declared his love for her while wearing an Elvis suit.
What’s a 16-year-old goth girl to do in 2003 but turn to Stephen Hawking for help?
Deborah Zoe Laufner’s play “End Days,” the latest offering of the Penobscot Theatre Company, is a little bit about the clash between science and religion. At its heart, however, it’s a play about healing after 9/11. It is a vibrant ensemble production at the Bangor Opera House that lets the audience laugh when winter’s end seems to be nowhere in sight. “End Days” sends theatergoers home wondering if faith and science aren’t entangled in some sort of double helix dance rather than in constant opposition.
The play, which runs through March 29, is being produced for the first time in Maine as part of the Maine Science Festival in Bangor this weekend.
Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport directs the two-act play with an eye for its comic moments. The five actors in the show forge a tight ensemble, but the two high school performers — Megan Ward of Bangor as Rachel Stein and Charlie Hanscom of Orrington as Nelson Steinberg — shine.
Hanscom, a senior at John Bapst Memorial High School, inhabits the role as if he’s already earned his Actor’s Equity card. Nelson is the catalyst the Stein family needs to help it heal, but nobody knows that until the final blackout. Hanscom’s natural comic timing is perfect, and he infuses the character with an awkward lovability that is irresistible.
His scenes with Doug Meswarb as Arthur Stein are magical because Hanscom is actually listening to his fellow actors, a rarity in a young performer. The scenes where the two work on Nelson’s Torah presentation for his upcoming bar mitzvah give what is at times a frenetic show, a couple of calm and show-stopping moments.
Ward, a senior at Bangor High School, is equally as good. Anger oozes from her every pore as Rachel flails against her mother’s new-found zeal for Christianity like a fish flopped onto the deck of a ship. In her scenes with A.J. Mooney as Sylvia, Ward perfectly portrays the passion her mother must have possessed at her age. That gives her performance a depth rarely seen by such a young actress.
Meswarb and Mooney, an experienced acting duo, dance and duel verbally as Arthur slowly emerges from his deep depression and Sylvia prepares for the Rapture. Both give insightful performances and never overshadow the less experienced performers onstage.
As Jesus and Stephen Hawking, Zachary Robbins again demonstrates his versatility. His Jesus is the loving, compliant companion Sylvia longs for, and his portrayal of scientist Hawking is just the foil Rachel longs for. Robbins brilliantly uses an electric wheelchair to punctuate his conversations with the teenage girl with hysterical results.
Newport and her technical designers executed a vision for the show that weaves together the mysteries religion and science seek to solve. The set and sound designs raise as many questions as the playwright does.
Dan Bilodeau’s set, the part that is downstage, at least, is functional, and Newport uses it well. It is what is on and behind the scrim that holds the show’s deepest and most fascinating mystery.
There appear to be pages of varying sizes attached to it, but it is impossible to decipher them. They might be from texts, religious or scientific, or they might be from Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch book. Depending on how the scrim is lit, it looks like the wailing wall in Jerusalem or the Twin Towers collapsing in on themselves or paper floating slowly to the ground from an office that no longer exists.
The lighting design by Jonathan Spencer, which illuminates sections of the background in between scenes, deepens the mystery.
Brandie Rita’s sound design, full of techno music and computer-generated sounds adds an eerie quality to the production. Kevin Koski’s costumes, especially Rachel’s goth garb and Nelson’s Elvis suit, illuminate each character at first sight.
The lasting lesson of this production of “End Days” is this: Whether the salve that closes the wound is discovered in the ritual of reciting Torah or the promises in the Book of Revelation or the scientific theories of an astrophysicist doesn’t matter. For the Steins, and, maybe for humanity, faith and science are necessary to feel joy in everyday life and hope for the future.
“End Days” runs through March 29 at the Bangor Opera House with performances Wednesdays through Sundays. Tickets start at $22 and are available online or by calling 942-3333. A discussion will held from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Sunday after the show. Organizers hope this discussion goes beyond the broad themes of the play to talk about specific questions raised by the storyline and give them a chance to explore audience reactions.