“Susan and God” is one of those largely forgotten plays written by a playwright, Rachel Crothers, who had considerable success on Broadway in the 1920's and 1930's, but who has also fallen into obscurity. That's unfortunate for both play and playwright because this work, set in the fashionable retreats of the Hamptons in 1937, is well-crafted, stylish and entertaining, intelligent and intriguing. It's satirical concerns with the social applications of one woman's newly discovered religiosity and the conflicted relationships of everyone else in her life feel timely and disarmingly relevant.
It's interesting that in the logo for this production the name Susan is in a large and elegant font, while the co-star billing for God is much smaller and more modest. Director Scott Nolte understands that Susan's is an entirely egocentric religious universe and that for her the discovery of a “thrilling, alive and fun” God is like a lovely, sparkling new trinket on her charm bracelet. And this woman is all about charm and all about trinkets, including the variously entangled couples who are also staying the summer.
When she returns from Europe intent on imposing this new treasure on the various people in her life, including her alcoholic husband, Barrie and their insecure but rapidly maturing daughter, Blossom, the shiny facets are a bit too reflective, a bit too clearly displaying her own distorted image, her own flaws and superficiality. While this play is too sophisticated to lead us to any neat resolution or “lesson” it does clearly affirm that spiritual reality must either be consistent with the life the believer is leading or it will simply underscore the extent of their hypocrisy. Still, for all its examination of serious questions of faith, this is primarily a social comedy, the kind of sophisticated, drawing-room romp that Noel Coward perfected.
This very good cast gets the tone exactly right and Nolte's direction keeps the action moving along quickly, pausing just long enough to make us aware of the underlying sobriety but never losing touch with the light, inconsequential nature of these people; we never forget that it is wit and triviality and charm that take the place of consequence in these lives. Beautifully costumed by Sarah Burch Gordon and set on Rick Lorig's stylish scenic design, the manners and postures and colorful swirling fashions represent the real material of this lifestyle, the real depth of this social stratum. The key to this show working, of course, depends on the performance of the spiritually rejuvenated Susan Trexel, and for this production that is in good hands, indeed.
Lisa Peretti has charm and style to spare and she brings a presence to the stage that simply dwarfs everyone else, while never diminishing them as individuals. I think she accomplishes that by keeping her character self-assured and self-referential at the same time that she is insisting that everyone else accept and agree with her “new religion”. It is almost as though she can only validate her experience if it becomes the experience of the others, while at the same time she really has no interest or concern with the experience of the others, so long as it reinforces her own godliness.
In the second act, when her relationship with her husband requires that she engage him on an entirely earthly level, Ms. Peretti is equally able to reveal the unpretty, far from divine woman who has failed her family and, for the most part, injured all of her friends. Don Brady gives her husband, Barrie, the most nakedly damaged and most honestly imperfect character on stage, a solidity and clarity that grounds the entire play. His call for simple truth from Susan is the fulcrum on which all of the others are balanced. When he admits his attraction to Irene, another substantial person, he names his attraction, “She has something more than charm – character.” Real character is what all these people are seeking and what is most removed from the lives they lead.
I also admired the suave and stylish rogue, Stubbie, played with brio by Nolan Palmer. His much too young new wife, Lenora (a very appealing Alicia K. Anderson), was an actress who gave up the stage for this marriage of convenience and who is still attracted to Clyde (Ryan Childers), another actor who will not give up the theatre for anything as insubstantial as marriage, although he will continue a relationship with Charlotte (Nikki Visel). Irene (Heather Hawkins) has given up her most recent marriage for a promised romance with Michael (Kevin Brady) but the result of that transaction is still uncounted. None of these people will have their lives influenced in any way by the ephemeral spirit Susan brought back in her steamer trunk from England. Only the child, Blossom (Austen Case), really changes and that is entirely the result of simply growing up, becoming an adult and leaving the child behind.
Circumstances will change, relationships will change, but these people really don't change any more than Susan has. She urges them into soul-cleansing public confessions in the manner she's learned in England because, “That's our power, talking about ourselves,” but when the friends stage a fake confession filled with histrionics and blather, it serves just as well. None of the trappings of Susan's new religion have any effect on the people in this play, including Susan. Perhaps genuine religious experience is something that happens inside people and that can't really be taken out and displayed for others. But then, that's an argument that many contemporary “people of faith” would have a hard time accepting themselves. That's also a good reason this amusing, bright play still deserves a place on our stage, still deserves a couple of hours of our consideration.