John Walch’s new play, In the Book Of (now showing at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre) uses as a reference point the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament, telling the story of the widowed Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi. That relationship between two women is paralleled by the relationship in this play between another Naomi (Libya Pugh), a solder in the war in Afghanistan, and Anisah (Sarah Stockton), the Afghan woman who has served as her translator.
The play actually opens with a wedding scene between Naomi, who is black, and Eddie (David Perez-Ribada), who is white. Eddie’s Mississippi family, including his outspoken sister, Gail (Rita Rehn), apparently has no problem with this mixed marriage. But when Eddie dies in the war (no spoiler alert needed) and a troubled Naomi returns home with Anisah in tow (for Anisah to stay in her own country after helping the Americans would endanger her life), Gail is far less welcoming.
Exactly how Naomi spirited Anisah out of Aghanistan is never really clear, but Gail is pretty sure the woman is in the States illegally. And since she’s running for a local election on a campaign platform devoted to kicking out all illegal immigrants, she’s got to start “sweeping the house clean” in her own home. (Occasional deluges of brooms onto the stage bear meaning here.) Further complications: Gail’s tolerant husband, Bo (Andy Prosky), and her son, Bo Jr. (Graham Stuart Allen), trying to recover from a tragic loss of his own, aren’t necessarily on Gail’s side in the issue—especially when Anisah and Junior begin to form a bond.
It sounds intriguing, and in this production, directed by Kate Alexander, we are sometimes caught up in the dramatization of the ever-timely immigration issue. But even from where I sat in the Gompertz (the back row), too often it felt that the cast was trying too hard, shouting too much, overdoing the emotions they were supposed to be feeling. That’s especially true for Rehn, who after all has to mouth the heated political rhetoric many of us are probably already tired of hearing in real life. And sometimes the dialogue flashes by so quickly it can be hard to discern all the words.
An exception to that, ironically perhaps, is Stockton as Anisah, who although speaking with an accent is quite clear and affecting. (Especially impressive since Stockton replaced another actress in the role very recently.) It’s largely thanks to her believability here that our hearts are engaged in the story at all—and that by the end of the play we are reminded of what can be the benefits of having a stranger in our midst.
The play unspools on a simple but pleasing set by Tom Buderwitz consisting of two wooden doors, back porch steps and a fence between the family’s two houses—a reminder that fences can divide but also unite.
In the Book Of continues through May 19; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.