Steppenwolf Theatre

at the Apollo Theater Center

There’s a book that’s a sort of fetish item at the Reader, called If Christ Came to Chicago. Written by William T. Stead, published in 1894, and serialized in this paper about 90 years later, it’s a combination of moralizing and reportage constructed around an interrogatory conceit: what would Christ think were he to show up at the corner of Clark and Harrison? Or thereabouts. You can more or less imagine what it’s like.

David Hare’s The Secret Rapture doesn’t look much at all like Stead’s Christ. Set in modern London and laid out like a modish melodrama, detailing the love lives and work loads of two sisters and their alcoholic, newly widowed stepmother, The Secret Rapture would seem to owe more to Terence Rattigan than to Saint Mark. But the two works are conceptual kin. Hare’s premise is like Stead’s, adjusted for time and place and satirical thrust: what if Christ came back to visit Margaret Thatcher’s London? In the case of The Secret Rapture, though, you can’t imagine what it’s like.

Hare’s Christ is a quiet, rather dowdy graphic artist named Isobel Glass; his Judas, Isobel’s lost, desperately ingratiating lover, Irwin; his Mary Magdalene, her pathologically ditzy stepmother, Katherine. And his Pharisees and Romans stretch in a long line that starts with Isobel’s Conservative Party-animal sister, Marion, and runs through London’s business world, all the way to Mrs. Thatcher herself.

The situation’s almost comically banal. Their eccentric, ecology-minded father having died (!), Isobel, Marion, and Marion’s born-again businessman husband, Tom, have to figure out what to do not only with the old man’s country house, but with Good-Time Katherine, his final indulgence. Naturally, Marion wants to dump both house and stepmother. Isobel, however, is more mindful of her father’s memory. Reluctantly but resolutely, she takes Katherine into the little design firm she runs with Irwin. And so sets into motion a series of events that lead to betrayal, death, and a tentative, late-20th-century sort of resurrection.

It sounds ludicrous, and in some ways it is. But Hare’s wry intelligence allows him tremendous control. Far from smothering the allegory, his indirections actually reveal it in ways that are alternately playful, scary, politically savage, and spiritually devastating. Watching this Steppenwolf production, I felt at times as if I were watching a strange, sad, surreal cartoon where familiar characters would appear and start to enact an old story–a story I’ve known all my life–only to break into weird distortions that threw me completely off but never left me doubting their truth. This off-balance familiarity, this dark light, is the triumph of The Secret Rapture. It’s what I’m talking about when I say you can’t imagine what it’s like.

Eric Simonson’s direction is as portentous as it has to be to get the job done. Played out on Linda Buchanan’s marvelous set, a cross between a mausoleum and a patio, and punctuated by Rob Milburn’s industrial sound–reminiscent of the entre act music in Other People’s Money–Simonson’s production never lets you forget What We’re All Doing Here without sacrificing its reality. Perfect for the allegory.

Linda Emond, on the other hand, misses that balance somewhat. Especially in the tents created for her by costume designer Erin Quigley, Emond’s Isobel seems too self-consciously deep, too much of another world, when the main virtue of Hare’s character is her human ambivalence, her flakiness, and her occasional cruelty.

Rondi Reed’s Marion is frighteningly, hilariously Thatcher-oid; Barbara Robertson’s Katherine is sweet and appallingly devious; Patrick Clear’s Tom is in fact wonderfully clear. But my favorite performance in this show is Jeffrey Hutchinson’s Irwin. Building the character out of a slow accumulation of slimy worms, Hutchinson manages to create a Uriah Heep for the 90s.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.