Review: “Believers” by Ken Jawarowski
On October 17, “Believers” drew the curtains on its final performance, closing a month-long run with the Workshop Theater. Written by New York Times Staff Editor Ken Jaworowski and directed by Alex Dmitriev, “Believers” gained Off-Off Broadway recognition at the Main Stage Theater, where I was able to join the audience for one of the final shows. Although “Believers” has ended, I believe the play still demands a commentary on its flawed depictions, specifically of the testing of faith. The play opened by introducing two college students: Donna, a Christian, and Chris, an atheist. The audience followed the couple as they engaged in flirtation, religious discussion, for the sake of Donna’s conscience, and finally, their first sexual encounter. Henceforth, the play’s acts alternated between their early relationship (with performances by Ben Sumrall and Allison Linker) and their challenges as parents (played by Tony Travostino and Mary Lauren). This vast timeframe included moments such as the couple’s marriage, career milestones, and the shared challenge of raising a disabled toddler.
The play captured the emotions of the audience with shattering brilliance. In one scene, Chris announced his rise to the role of Vice President at his company; whereupon Donna shifted gears to reveal that their son was in the hospital for a self-inflicted injury. The play continued its tragic spiral, resulting in Donna’s decision to put an end to her child’s pain, and the difficulty of raising him, through a murder-suicide. Chris, egged on by Donna in Eve-like fashion, swallowed the pills before hurtling into a shell-shocking plot twist.
Based on the play’s reviews and my own hopes, I expected the plot to feature deep turmoil and testing of faith. Instead, Donna’s faith unravels at the seams of pithy, and often unbiblical, sayings like “God helps those who help themselves” and “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” There was no mention of Scripture, merely phrases from faulty theologians and Hallmark cards. It came as no surprise to me that Donna discarded such weak, ill-defined faith.
In one scene, the couple probed the question, “Can people change?” Chris responded firmly and negatively, suggesting that people maintain their identity from birth. Yet years later, when Donna renounced her faith, Chris appeared shocked. He revealed out of nowhere that he had been pursuing the faith, visiting a small chapel as he reflected on their situation. This fascinating transition was never explained in relation to his worldview, and his faith was never mentioned again.
The play barely touched upon Chris and Donna’s respective journeys of faith. In Donna’s case, her understanding of faith never developed beyond feelings of guilt and hopes of achieving answered prayers. Furthermore, it seemed that she lost her faith too easily—faith that she had professed for a long period of time. While she questioned God on the way out, she did not put up a fight, which would have been practical in light of the desperate situation with her disabled son. While I don’t dismiss Donna’s choice, I argue that she didn’t think through her choice with true Christianity, her alleged roots. The play could have flourished through Donna’s consideration of what it means to be a Christian; for example, weighing the burden of her child against the call for love and mercy, or, the value of mercy-killing against the value of life. The opportunities for these challenges would have made for a more interesting and nuanced portrait of faith.
I believe that “Believers,” oriented towards a deeply tragic end, told the story of a mental unhinging, rather than a testing of faith. I came to understand this through the couple’s relationship with their son, who was only once referred to by name and never seen until his death in the last scene. I was disturbed by the fact that Christian’s humanity was never acknowledged and that Donna remained perpetually distant from her son, even throughout her pursuit of normalcy.
If Jaworowski intended to leave the audience with a question, I believe it was this: “Can faith withstand difficult circumstances?” While I appreciate the playwright’s deliberate inspirations, I think the question would be better posed with genuine faith as part of the equation and the active ingredient in the characters’ lives.