According to legend, the Wandering Jew was once a cobbler with a shop in Jerusalem, on the road leading to Golgotha. When Jesus came along that road, dragging his cross, the cobbler refused to let him rest in the shop’s doorway. Jesus’s surprisingly pissy response was to condemn him to wander restlessly over the earth until the Second Coming. And that, the story says, is precisely what happened. The poor guy hasn’t so much as taken a nap in the last two millennia.
Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel puts the tale of the Wandering Jew at the center of a metaphysical detective story. Having discovered hints that the cursed shoemaker is still among us, a prickly, obsessive modern-day librarian starts restlessly wandering over the earth in the hope of tracking him down.
Now, a non-Christian may be forgiven (so to speak) for having reservations about this 90-minute monologue, framed as a lecture given by the Librarian to defray restless-wandering expenses. Though Berger is clearly not proselytizing—in fact, he seems anxious at times to give things an ecumenical spin, however awkward—his script demands a suspension of religious disbelief as the price of entering into its imaginative world. Empathizing with the Librarian’s quest means at least entertaining the notion that the Wandering Jew is real, which in turn means entertaining the notion that Jesus had the power to make his malediction against the cobbler stick, which in turn means entertaining the notion that Jesus was a legit messiah. Which in turn might make a heathen audience member feel either left out or put out or both.
But as a heathen myself, I’d advise you to play along. Berger uses the conceit to generate a sly, smart, quirky character study that ruminates poignantly—despite a somewhat saccharine final passage—on what it is to be condemned to life.
Berger’s ruminations come across with a special vividness in this First Folio Theatre production, staged by Alison Vesely, with Kristine Thatcher as the Librarian. Thatcher directed Michael Joseph Mitchell in a fine version of Underneath the Lintel five years ago; onstage here herself, her few tentative moments are far outweighed by a great many that are fierce, funny, and even brave. The fact that Thatcher has been fighting (and from the looks of things, winning) a struggle against a life-threatening illness gives her choice of material an extraordinary resonance.