Cornerstone Theater’s world premiere of “A Long Bridge Over Deep Waters” is an ambitious answer to the question, How does faith unite and divide us? Inspired in part by Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde,” the show, developed over 4½ years and featuring 50 actors from 10 communities of faith, is refreshingly adept at avoiding a preachy, “meaningful” tone. The most emotionally resonant and solid material appears in act one, but director Bill Rauch steers clear of sentimentality and opts for a humorous approach.
The show opens with a lively prologue featuring Loraine Shields as Christine Stevenson, who purchased the land for the Ford Theater in 1920 with the idea of presenting “The Pilgrimage Play” and a series of other spiritually oriented stories centering on religious leaders. “The Pilgrimage Play” continued performances until 1964, when a lawsuit closed it because of its religious nature.
This history makes the Ford a logical place for “A Long Bridge” and for Cornerstone, a multi-ethnic, nationwide company dedicated to bringing communities closer together.
After a moderately interesting segment about an instructor teaching English to students who help her accept her Tongva (Indian) heritage, playwright James Still (“Looking Over the President’s Shoulder”) offers the endearing “Winter/Spring,” which spotlights Ruth (Dorothy James), an elderly Jewish poet, and her Cambodian-American assistant Tevy (Leonard Wu).
Tevy is unable to comprehend why Ruth doesn’t believe in Jesus, then tells her he’s in awe of God, prompting her to shoot back, “I never wanted to be in awe of God — I always preferred a good argument.” James and Wu are excellent, skillfully drawing sharp contrasts between Still’s protagonists while indicating they have the capability to understand and appreciate each other’s differences.
The most dramatic and beautiful episode, “A Heart Is Where the Home Is,” introduces Ruth’s son Alan (Jeff Sugarman) to Regina (Adina Porter), an African-American who now has Ruth’s heart. In the story’s sensitive ending, Regina places Alan’s hands on her heart and lets him hear the beating sound that represents his lost mother and the life-giving force it has provided for another, vastly different human being.
“Houston, We Have a Problem” highlights trapped astronauts Redwood (Michael Phillip Edwards), a black Methodist, and Anderson (Peter Howard), a white Buddhist, and their efforts to spiritually handle the possibility of dying in space. Edwards and Howard are a terrific team, embodying the worlds of traditional prayer and chanting.
Author Still smoothly brings in Diana (Page Leong), Anderson’s realtor wife, who’s trying to sell a home while worrying about her husband’s fate. This scene deals effectively with unthinking prejudice (“You’re pretty pushy for a Buddhist”), and leads into a stark tale about Middle Eastern parents of the Baha’i faith who come to the United States to escape persecution, only to have their son die in the U.S.-instigated Iraq war. The son’s feelings are captured in a powerfully written and directed video sequence.
Remaining playlets are less story-based and begin to make points in a more obvious way. These include “Declaration,” set in a college dorm and focusing on a Muslim woman’s insistence on wearing a hijab, although the scarf disturbs her Hindu roommate. This same problem — on-the-nose commentary over conflict — prevents the story of a gay Muslim and his sympathetic lesbian friend from hitting its mark, and there’s a well-choreographed but broadly farcical Hindu fairy-tale sequence that seems out of key with the rest of the production.
What fuses the material is a climax highlighting people of different faiths — every conceivable combination, ranging from Cherokee Christians and Iranian Jews to Hindu drag nuns — expressing their points of view. It’s initially hard to conquer skepticism that all these diametrically opposed viewpoints can blend, but director Rauch makes his case convincingly enough to give spectators hope that such integration and acceptance is possible.