A snowman wearing a dead child’s yarmulke. A Honda Civic’s hazard lights, blinking in the snow. Pineapple danish served in a tattoo parlor. Such vivid images lend a ring-true distinctiveness to “Moses,” a rewardingly unpredictable one-person play about grief and faith.
Written by Michele Lowe and deftly performed in its world premiere run at Theater J by Grant Harrison, “Moses” touches on profound issues — self-forgiveness, the human-divine relationship and whether pain is better than emotional numbness. But what makes the play most compelling — at least until its maudlin final moments — is its idiosyncratic storytelling, bolstered by those vivid details and the erratic behavior of the protagonist, Moses Schneider.
Told largely via third-person narration but incorporating various characters’ voices, the play explores the aftermath of a tragedy that shatters Moses’s life. When his wife and five children die in a fire at their Bronx home, he skips their funeral, quits his hardware-store job and becomes a recluse who learns how to bake an awesome sourdough. Is he healing? In denial? Or is he experiencing the answer to the enraged prayer he shouted after the fire: a plea to be allowed to forget God entirely?
In director Johanna Gruenhut’s graceful production, which represents the second installment in Theater J’s one-person-play series, “Here I Am,” Harrison deploys both haunted intensity and deadpan humor. He ably calibrates the script’s tonal shifts, such as when Moses’s despairing j’accuse to God — “No imagination. Just the same thing over and over again. Death. And more death!” — is suddenly interrupted by comically bickering strangers.
These juxtapositions enhance the play’s moving portrait of faith as supporting and sometimes seemingly failing the messy challenges of modern life. Lowe (Broadway’s “The Smell of the Kill”) has coached rabbis on writing and delivering sermons, and she seeds this script with interesting echoes of the Moses narrative from the Torah. Like the prophet, Moses Schneider experiences not only life-changing fire (a nod to the burning bush), but also moments of vocation and epiphany, such as when a supernatural force seems to prevent him from putting his dead son’s yarmulke back on that snowman, where an unknown person had placed it.
Nephelie Andonyadis’s scenic design, with its dangling lightbulbs (hardware-store-veteran Moses fixates on a flickering bulb in a house of worship), is spare enough to underscore the title character’s loneliness, while Kelly Colburn’s swirling-smoke-style projections suggest both conflagration and theological mystery. Sound designer Tosin Olufolabi and props consultant Pamela Weiner also add kick to the play’s now-bleak, now-funny, ultimately hopeful world.
“Moses” does lurch in its climactic moments into unduly sentimental catharsis. Still, the title character’s saga lingers in the mind, achingly sad snowman and pineapple danish included.
Moses by Michele Lowe. Directed by Johanna Gruenhut; costume design, Johnna Presby; lighting, Jesse W. Belsky. About 90 minutes. Tickets: $39.99-$90.99. Through Dec. 24 at the Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. 202-777-3210. theaterj.org.