Review: Galilee, 34 Imagines What Christ’s Followers Did Right After His Death

Eleanor Burgess’s play runs at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California.

Raviv Ullman, Benjamin Pelteson, Eric Berryman, Amy Brenneman, and Christopher Cruz in South Coast Rep’s world premiere production of Eleanor Burgess’s Galilee, 34.
(© Robert Huskey)

South Coast Repertory offers the world premiere of Eleanor Burgess’s insightful Galilee, 34, a reimagining of the year after Jesus Christ’s death, when his family mourns and attempts to spread his Gospel. A funny but tragic indictment of the human need to twist religion to serve one’s own agency, Galilee, 34 is a challenging and fulfilling “what if?”

The recent crucifixion of Yeshua (later he will be given the Roman translation of “Jesus”) has both damaged and emboldened his family to write scrolls to promote his teachings. While sitting around the yard in the first-century equivalent of a trailer park, they reflect on his miraculous deeds. The characters break the fourth wall, commenting on the conversations, while revealing, “none of this happened. But I promise… all of it is true.”

Friend Shimon (Benjamin Pelteson) and Yeshua’s brother Yacov (Eric Berryman) trace Yeshua’s final days, with the help of Yeshua’s mother, Miriam (Amy Brenneman) and former girlfriend Miri of Magdala (Teresa Avia Lim). Both will be remembered as the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalane, respectively. Into the mix arrives a former betrayer, Saul (Raviv Ullman), who has been reborn after hearing of the Messiah. Saul joins the team, but everyone’s goals are not the same, leading to turmoil.

Burgess’s play reflects how religion can be manipulated, even if people’s intentions are pure. All the characters have been altered by their time with Yeshua, but they learn contradictory lessons. Once someone has become a zealot, compromise is no longer on the table. The dialogue is irreverent, turning characters into everyday people who are either unaware they will become historical figures or are desperately making fame their end goal. The play makes characters who always seemed other-worldly into relatable humans.

Eric Berryman, Amy Brenneman, Raviv Ullman and Benjamin Pelteson in SCR's 2024 world premiere production of GALILEE, 34 by Eleanor Burgess
Eric Berryman, Amy Brenneman, Raviv Ullman, and Benjamin Pelteson appear in South Coast Rep’s world premiere production of Eleanor Burgess’s Galilee, 34.
(© Robert Huskey)

Director Davis McCallum extends this accessibility by staging his cast around Sandra Goldmark’s picnic set (complete with hanging laundry) as if they’re at a neighborhood barbeque. Each actor’s stance is modern and relaxed, and they speak in a contemporary cadences. Josh Epstein’s lighting evokes the heat of the desert which adds to the tension as everyone begins to feud.

The cast is exemplary. Brenneman, as the matriarch, commands the stage even when her character is being diminished by the ancient but ever-present toxic masculinity. Berryman is appropriately exasperating as the brother still in the shadows, who wavers amongst stronger personalities. As John the Baptist’s irascible mother who bums around for free food and chats, Sharon Omi is hilarious as a first-century version of the neighborhood busybody.

Religion brings hope and comfort, but it also can be weaponized. Galilee, 34 illustrates how even good people can lead the world toward its current chaos by molding theology to their own ends.

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Galilee, 34

Closed: May 12, 2024