MAN OF CONVICTION Platt as Paul.
Looking at Christianity objectively, historically, can appear to be critical, since religion is a matter of faith. But British playwright Howard Brenton's Paul, which is playing at the Gamm through April 17, shouldn't offend, because it draws a sympathetic though unsentimental scenario about the likely psychological conflicts of Christianity's founder. No, not Jesus — Saul of Tarsus.
Because the Sandra-Feinstein Gamm Theatre is a well-regarded Actors Equity venue, it's being allowed to present the North American premiere, since no larger theater, which would pay more in royalties, took the opportunity.
As even Unitarians know, Saul changed his name to Paul after being shaken by a vision on the road to Damascus, where he was heading with other soldiers to round up more Christians. Though a Roman, he was a Jew, a temple guard.
In this gut-wrenching performance by Alexander Platt, Paul is a zealot, making the Jesus cult succeed where dozens of other messianic beliefs had failed by spreading the word to other Mediterranean communities. According to this account, without him Christianity would have died off as a small Jerusalem congregation, comprised only of the apostles and others who knew Yeshua, Jesus, when he was preaching. The group had no desire to proselytize.
We meet three of that group. The fisher-man Peter (Jim O'Brien), the "rock" upon which the Roman Catholic Church based papal authority, is a weak-willed man of shaky faith. The apostle James (Marc Dante Mancini) is Jesus's brother. And Mary Magdalene (Karen Carpenter) is Jesus's wife, still annoyed that her husband insisted on washing the feet of prostitutes, like herself, to display humility.
They are all keeping a secret. What the Jerusalem congregation doesn't want others to know is that Yeshua survived. He didn't rise from the dead three days after crucifixion, though he did appear to hundreds and display his wounds. The rock before his tomb didn't magically roll aside — it had never been placed there. The tomb had never been sealed.
"Christ is risen!" Paul repeats over and over in the first words of the play. It is 65 AD and he is shackled to a wall, about to be executed in the morning. We soon flash back 30 years, to that road to Damascus. His friend Barnabas describes him as a "fierce" persecutor, which then-Saul says he has to be because, regarding the heretics, "belief that strong" could shake the foundations of the temple.
Being a Pharisee, who believed that the dead will rise at the end of the world, he is a step ahead in believing in the resurrection of Yeshua (Cedric Lilly), who approaches him when he is alone on the road after suffering an epileptic fit. Though he displays his wounds, Yeshua doesn't claim to be the Messiah when asked, leaving that conclusion to Saul. The second act turns on Paul finding it irrelevant that the Yeshua he met did not rise from the dead. The Jerusalem congregation has change its mind and now gives him permission to preach to the Gentiles on its behalf — with the sly proviso that he collect money for them. He had already shouted "Stupidity!" at the opinion that Yeshua preached to the Jews only for the Jews. Similarly, though Paul has been told by those who should know that the good rabbi never died, he is so impressed with the transformative power of the resurrection myth on himself, that he continues to believe it and to convince others.