What better metaphor for religion is there than that of a build-it-yourself furniture store? One is presented with a labyrinth of bright and perfect and fully-composed solutions, only to discover that they come in blank boxes for one to assemble oneself, provided only with vague graphic instructions and an Allen wrench. 1812’s The God Project goes behind-the-scenes, to the stockroom of such a place and offers many views of this poetic comparison.
The God Project follows Unnamed- Furniture-Store-Whose-Products-Have-Funny-Swedish-Sounding-Names employees Sheila, the trainer (Jennifer Childs) and Drew, the trainee (Sean Close). Sheila is organized – she lives by her checklists – and a devout Christian. Drew is a failed musician who needed a job, and doesn’t share an ounce of Sheila’s enthusiasm, either for holiday-themed houseware displays or for religion.
The set, designed by Colin McIlvaine, is a stockroom; mile-high shelving filled Tetris-style with non-descript cardboard boxes. These large pieces rotate to reveal other surprises, but most of the action happens in this room; indeed, the most invigorating and dramatic moments are those shared by Sheila and Drew as they argue about the nature of prayer, faith, callings and doubt. Childs and Close co-created the piece, developing themes of theology and laughter, finding where they intersect, where they are incompatible, and where they may be hiding in unlikely places.
Herein lies the strengths of The God Project. It covers much theological vs. comedic ground, some with subtlety, some less so, but almost always successful. Val, the store manager (one of the many characters portrayed by the amazing-at-everything Joliet Harris), is heard over the loudspeaker, but seems to know everything that’s happening downstairs. After she helps Drew put together a bunk bed, Sheila expresses shock that she presented herself, in person, to Drew, thus launching into questions: why Drew, who is new and uninitiated, and not Sheila, a Faithful Servant? There’s a memorable and wise passage about handing children empty Easter eggs that ends in a lesson in epiphanies (paraphrasing, but: when your mind is empty, that’s when the miracle happens). A favorite scene is Sheila’s interview with the head of the Seminary. Her rambling and ranting is top notch comedy writing and performing; indeed, Jennifer Childs is a Philadelphia treasure, and this moment is worth the price of admission.
There are a few scenes that run overlong, where the funny ran out before the joke-telling did. The 130 minute running time is a bit much for a comedy as compact as this one; a few edits could bring it to a tidy and manageable 1:45. But the denouement is worth the wait, as both Sheila and Drew not only grow, but find lovely common ground. In the end, The God Project is about how to put your life together with the instructions and tools your creator has given you.
The God Project is running through May 20. For more information: www.1812productions.org