The UA Department of Theatre presented a heartwarming, hilarious and culturally relevant production of “In the Book Of,” a brilliant play from one of the department’s own.
“In the Book Of,” written by John Walch, head of UA Theatre’s MFA playwriting program, is a clever reimagining of the Old Testament’s Book of Ruth. The play puts the biblical tale’s themes of family, loss, love and welcoming the foreigner in the modern context of the Afghanistan War and American immigration politics.
“In the Book Of” follows three women whose lives are permanently altered by the combat death of soldier Eddie. Eddie’s older sister, Gail, is desperately trying to hold her family together in Broxton, Mississippi. His wife, Naomi, a lieutenant, is discharged and sent home from Afghanistan following Eddie’s death, and Naomi’s Afghan interpreter, Anisah, comes along with her thanks to forged refugee papers.
The majority of the play takes place in Broxton– a small town that is rocked by the interactions of the three women.
Of the actresses portraying these three compelling characters, Leah Smith, a first-year acting graduate student, was by far the shining star of the production. She gave an excellent portrayal of Gail, a deeply wounded woman who decides to run for mayor of Broxton to “clean house” of illegal immigrants, starting with her sister-in-law’s new Afghan housemate.
Alternating between controversy-stirring, hysterically funny, and heart-wrenchingly raw, Smith’s Gail was an incredibly engaging character and a nonstop delight to watch. Smith’s performance was especially strong in her scenes with Riles Newsome, a first-year acting graduate student portraying Gail’s son, Bo Jr.
Smith and Newsome had great onstage chemistry, and I am not ashamed to say that their touching mother-son scene late in the second act brought real tears to my eyes.
Melissa Moznabi was also noteworthy as Anisah, a true believer in the American dream who sees the beauty in everything from weeds to apple pies from McDonalds. Moznabi’s charming portrayal brought a lot of heart and humor to the role.
On the other hand, I thought Taylar Hasberry, a senior theater major, was a curious choice for the role of Naomi, as she seemed a little stiff throughout the show. Of course, a combat veteran suffering from PTSD is a difficult role to embody, and I did feel at times that Hasberry was almost there in terms of the emotional delivery. However, she seemed to just miss the mark.
Overall, the whole cast deserves a shoutout for having great comedic timing and delivery. For a dramatic play tackling such serious subject matter, “In the Book Of” is still chock full of hilarity, and the opening night audience never went more than a few minutes without breaking out in laughter.
I also want to mention the simple but lovely design work, which was engaging and tied in well with the performance. I was a fan of the decision to present the play on a thrust stage, allowing the audience to experience the intimate story in a more immersive way. I also appreciated the incorporation of brooms and dandelions, two important symbols in the play, into the backdrops and props.
Of course, strong acting and design is nothing without good playwriting, and Walch’s original work is a true gem. In just two acts, the play manages to artfully tackle everything from veterans’ issues and immigration politics to the destruction of the American middle class, southern rural poverty and various forms of trauma.
Although written in 2010 in the wake of Alabama’s restrictive immigration law, House Bill 56, “In the Book Of” is as timely now as it was then. The questions its characters raise about what it means to be an American and who deserves to be here are ones that our country is still trying to answer.
With drama, comedy, politics and romance, UA Theatre’s “In the Book of” has a little something for everyone, and it seems no wonder that tickets are selling fast. My favorite UA production so far this school year, this play is a must-see.
“In the Book Of” Runs through Feb. 23 at the Global Campus Theatre on Center Street. UA student tickets are $5 each.