“God’s Work” isn’t a theater piece that unfolds linearly, but more of a concept constructed from moods and feelings, with scenes often tying together or melting into each other in a dreamlike fashion. The evocative lighting design by Jeremy Getz and the frequently beautiful compositions by sound designer Mikhail Fiksel play across Scott C. Neale’s stony gray multilevel set to create a sense of unreality that permeates the story. But, in fact, this unreality—a harrowing tale of abuse and redemption—is based on a true story, gathered and told by the Albany Park Theater Project in their fourth play produced on a Goodman stage.
Constantly threatened and punished by their dictatorial, religiously fundamentalist father (a stern Vincent K. Meredith), a constantly growing group of children (every few scenes a few new kids are “born” and added to the ensemble) seek refuge amongst each other as they try to please their uncaring father and understand why they suffer. “They’re good kids and they do what God wants,” replies one sibling, heartbreakingly, when asked why other kids at school seem not to be dealing with the torments that they are. Among this group is Rachel (a spunky Maidenwena Alba) who not only serves as our narrator at the opening and closing of the piece but gives us a character to focus on and follow in this tangle of children.
The movement design by Stephanie Paul and Maggie Popadiak is best when the full ensemble is involved, flying across the stage, stomping, swinging and writhing in a frenzy of ecstasy and agony—most often agony. There’s a sense of ordered chaos in this choreography that effectively draws out an emotional response. Where the production falters a bit is in frequently allowing these scenes to play out a bit longer than necessary. Once a specific mood has been set or a point made, rather than continuing, we’re asked to dwell in these moments longer and it starts to feel repetitive. The intention may be to stretch these scenes out in order to establish a sense of unease or discomfort in the audience in imagining these disheartening scenarios—if so, directors Paul, Popadiak and Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez should trust that their very capable ensemble has delivered the message effectively in a shorter timeframe. “God’s Work” only runs ninety minutes, but it could still use a bit of tightening.
Still, there’s an earnestness and enthusiasm with which this young cast (aged fourteen to eighteen) approaches the material that is captivating. The internal struggle between love and hate, defiance and obedience is clearly played out in these teens’ portrayals. There’s real physical angst displayed on stage, but also moments of love and connection as the children seek escape in games and fantasy. Puppetry work by Ely Espino and Jalen D. Rios as a pair of loving parents caring for a child is especially enthralling.
Despite the intensity of the story, we’re offered a ray of hope in the last few minutes. Still, not all scars (emotional or otherwise) are easily washed away and the penultimate scene reveals this truth simply and poignantly in a stirring moment that would make a fine ending. But we’re given an unnecessary final scene as our heroine circles back around to pray to a more loving God than the one her father tormented her with. Perhaps this coda adds more of a hopeful (almost lighthearted) slant to the ending but it also detracts from the subtly touching beat we’ve just witnessed and leaves us wondering what has led this child back into the arms of the God that allowed her and her siblings to experience such a painful upbringing. (Zach Freeman)
Albany Park Theater Project at The Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, (312)443-3800, aptpchicago.org. $10-$25. Through April 19.