A Closer Look at THE RELIGION THING: An Interview with Playwright Renee Calarco

This blog entry comes to us from Frank Disalvo, a Theater J Literary Intern and MFA Playwriting Candidate  at Catholic University. Frank served as dramaturg on Theater J’s production of THE RELIGION THING.

The first duty of a dramaturg working on a new play is to explain to everyone else what a dramaturg does (ha, ha, yeah, ahem–that’s a little dramaturgy humor there).  The second duty is for the dramaturg to keep his eyes on the text, working with the playwright to help develop the piece, and with the actors to help them better understand the world of the play (through research, images, and conversation.)

I sat down with the playwright to talk about her new play, and how Theater J has worked with her over the past year and a half to develop it.  I also took it as an opportunity to just talk about the play itself, as dramaturgs are wont to do.

The cast of THE RELIGION THING (photo by Colin Hovde)

The Play (or, “Why You Have No Excuse Not To See This”)

The Religion Thing deals with weighty topics including, but not limited to, religion (as you may have inferred from the title) and politics.  As you watch the show, though, you will discover that our playwright never takes an opportunity to comment on her characters, or to inject her opinion into the play.  Calarco, an award-winning D.C. playwright, says “I don’t have an agenda with this play.  I didn’t want to reveal what my religion is, or what my political opinions are.”  In the end, this makes The Religion Thing a much more complex and thought-provoking play, leaving the audience with a lot to sort out for themselves.

The Religion Thing is a case study on personal identity rather than any kind of argument for or against religious belief.  Calarco shows how religion and faith not only affect the relationship between a person and his or her God, but also between a person and their own sense of self.  Throughout the play we see conflicts that are created because characters’ religious beliefs–or lack thereof–clash with their past, or their future.

 Okay, you caught me – if it sounds like I am being laughably vague, it’s because I am – The Religion Thing is not only a thematically deep play that will no doubt spark lengthy discussions (I suggest you and your fellow play-goers plan to spend a few hours at coffee shop or bar after the show), but it is also equal parts character-driven and plot-driven, with plenty of twists and surprises.

Liz Mamana and Chris Stezin as Mo and Brian in THE RELIGION THING (photo by Colin Hovde)

Mo and Brian are our main protagonists of the play.  A successful D.C. couple, she’s a quick-thinking lawyer with a sharp tongue and he’s a laid-back lobbyist who is a little lost in life.  When Mo’s friend Patti mentions that she and her husband Jeff are thinking of having a baby, it sets something off in Mo and the arguing begins.

“I’m tired of waiting for you, Brian,” Mo says mid-way through the first act, when the two are alone.  “I am not waiting until I’m 40 [to have kids].”

“So the religion thing is what?” replies Brian.  (Hey, that’s the title of the play!)

“The religion thing” is a point of contention that Mo and Brian have been avoiding confronting for their entire four years of marriage.  You see, Mo is Roman Catholic (“lapsed Catholic,” points out Brian) and Brian is Jewish (“You haven’t set foot in a synagogue since I’ve known you,” Mo shoots back at him).

 Neither of them is particularly religious.  And yet, neither is willing to budge when it comes to “the religion thing.”

“Our children are not being raised Catholic,” Brian says sternly.

“What, you want them to be raised Jewish?” asks Mo, though the disbelief in her voice shows it’s not really a question.

This is where The Religion Thing is at its most engaging and thought-provoking.  Faith isn’t so important to Mo and Brian–what their kids “believe,” matters of heaven and hell, and spirituality aren’t the point.  The real issue here is identity.  While Brian hasn’t been to a Kol Nidre service in eight years and Mo only goes to Mass on Christmas Eve, they both still identify strongly with the religion with which they were raised; neither would consider converting.

What makes this situation so difficult for us as the audience is that we can see that Mo and Brian are perfect for each other in every other way.  They way they can riff off of each other and trade lighthearted insults can only be described as endearing.  But Calarco gives us no easy outs – and she refuses to show us her judgments of the characters in the play.

“What do you hope happens to Mo and Brian after the end of the play?” I ask her eagerly, hoping she’ll give me some solace after the uncertainty of the play’s final scene.

“I think they’re doing what they should be doing at that moment in time,” she responds with a slight smile.  Well, I suppose I can read whatever I want into that.  Thanks, Renee.

You can see for yourself what happens to Mo and Brian by purchasing a ticket to THE RELIGION THING, which runs through January 29.

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