No one’s saying it would be an easy sell, but Rinde Eckert’s thoughtful and surprisingly theatrical tribute to the great 20th century religious philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr is one of those experiences you really want to share with others — like, say, every hard-nosed religious fundamentalist on the face of the earth. Smartly constructed as a controversial theologian’s final seminary lecture and given the hopeful title of “Horizon,” the piece ingeniously illustrates its teaching points through music, patter and parables performed by the scribe with two assistants in a quasi-vaudevillian style. Didactic, yes. But provocative, too — and damned if it isn’t fun.
Eckert, who came close to winning a Pulitzer Prize for drama this year, is positively mesmerizing as a nonconformist theologian named Reinhart Poole who has been summarily dismissed from his teaching position at a prestigious seminary. Aside from some back-and-forth chat with father, mother, wife and estranged brother (all roles impeccably played by versatile stooges David Barlow and Howard Swain), the meaty substance of the piece is Poole’s final lecture to his students.
As per his custom, the defrocked prof writes key words — like “belief/Christian belief” and “judgment/God’s judgment” — on large chalkboards and then challenges his class to rethink their assumptions about these concepts. Thankfully, we don’t actually have to listen to the contributions of a bunch of sophomores and are free to appreciate the breadth of Poole’s own ideas (on conundrums like free will and God’s creation of the Devil) and the clarity of the allegories and parables used to illustrate them.
The stylized musical-performance idiom devised by Eckert and honed in literarily inflected previous pieces like “And God Created Great Whales” (a meditation on Melville) and “An Idiot Divine” (ditto for Dostoevsky) adapts itself smoothly to the philosophical content and ecclesiastical style of the current material. While assigning a number to a barbershop trio seems like pure antic fun, Poole’s humanistic interpretations of biblical precepts lend themselves naturally to operatic arias and gospel shouts.
But “Horizon” really connects when Poole drifts away from his lecture notes and turns to the play he is writing, an extended allegory about the construction of a church by laborers who keep tearing it down to build it up again.
Barlow and Swain are eminently watchable clowns in these scenes, hefting heavy cinder blocks from here to there and back again while pondering the meaning of it all in heavy stage-Irish and stage-Scots accents. But Poole has a serious point to make about the cosmic absurdity (and temporal impracticality) of organized religions that undermine and dismantle each other’s work in their insistence on being the single path to truth.
As Poole/Niebuhr makes it abundantly clear — in the play’s final haunting image — this road has no end. It goes on forever.