If you’re a regular theatergoer, you’ll be forgiven for thinking Chicago’s theater scene is a godless place. Which isn’t to say that theater makers are more inclined toward heathenism than any other subset of the city’s population. But in a community overflowing with playwrights eager to write about Big Issues—police violence, gender inequity, mental illness, cyber bullying, addiction, homelessness, trauma, Alzheimer’s, gentrification, and seemingly every nuance of identity politics—it’s the rare scribe who tackles faith, the issue that has overwhelmed, mystified, and tormented several millennia’s worth of great thinkers.
Certainly there’s no shortage of theatrical spirituality on local stages, often echoing the overearnest musings of New Age devotees. And you can hardly make it through a theater season without encountering numerous characters crafted to display a problematic religiosity. But finding a protagonist sincerely grappling with his or her faith over the course of two acts is a bit like hunting the snark.
Which makes Chicago playwright Samantha Beach’s new drama The Snare a welcome oddity. While Beach’s uncertain structure and light tone prevent her thoughtful, provocative story from building to a meaningful conclusion—a problem even this powerfully acted, intelligently directed Jackalope Theatre premiere can’t overcome—The Snare is the rare play that asks an audience to accept, without a trace of irony, that faith truly matters to “ordinary” people.
Beach sets her play in an unnamed midwestern town where Abigail, a preternaturally patient, understanding mother to teenagers Ruth and Caleb, has just been promoted to pastor at their local church. It’s a plum position; the place sees some 4,000 parishioners thrice weekly and is one of the most influential in the country, at least according to her levelheaded schoolteacher husband, David. It’s also unaccountably conservative for a nondenominational church; Abigail will be its first female pastor, driving some well-heeled members to defect.
With only a few days to go before Abigail’s debut in the pulpit, eighth-grader Ruth mentions, almost in passing, that “the devil tells me to do things.” As Ruth’s behavior grows increasingly unpredictable—she insists on sleeping in a fort she builds in the living room, goes to violent extremes in an effort to be named captain of her school basketball team, drops a massive F-bomb on her mother—it becomes less and less likely the teenager’s just going through a phase. Still, Abigail’s convinced her daughter’s driven not by a demon but by some underlying psychological ache she can’t express. Ruth, meanwhile, just wants her troubling faith to be taken as seriously as her mother’s. After all, if everyone believes Abigail can hear God’s voice guiding her in her daily life, why can’t anyone believe Ruth hears the devil’s?
Beach sets in motion what should be a tumultuous family drama that plunges into religious and epistemological dark alleys. And there’s no shortage of meaty scenes in the two-hour show, especially as Abigail’s faith, which has guided her since childhood, begins to waver while Ruth’s grows more impregnable. But Beach struggles to let the action progress and the tension escalate. That’s partly because she doesn’t prioritize her characters’ dilemmas, focusing almost as much attention on Caleb’s efforts to emerge from his introverted shell, for example, as on David’s efforts to understand his daughter’s possible demonic possession. But it’s also because she consistently creates seemingly pivotal moments—Ruth’s assaulting a fellow player in a basketball game, for example—that rarely produce significant consequences. It’s as though she resets the play after each scene, at least through the first act. Things seldom get as serious as the facts would indicate.
She’s also loaded up her script with numerous half-developed subplots—Caleb’s trying to learn to drive, Ruth and David are hoping to get Ruth noticed by basketball scouts, Ruth’s babysitter Sloane is recording podcasts about strong-minded women—that stall and muddle the action. While most of the threads ultimately come together, Beach seeks the long way down most every path she pursues.
Still, she’s got the core of something exceptional here: a mother-daughter struggle to understand fundamental religious truths and to find guidance in the face of debilitating doubt. It’s enough to make for a worthwhile evening. Director Elana Boulos steers Cyd Blakewell as Abigail and Caroline Heffernan as Ruth through the script’s emotional rapids with unflagging confidence. Blakewell and Heffernan show just how powerful The Snare might be if it were more consistently and strategically focused on them. v