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Review: The Unbelieving Spotlights Faith Leaders Losing Their Religion

The newest documentary play from the Civilians takes on nonbelief among the clergy.

David Aaron Baker, Joshua David Robinson, Jeff Biehl, Dan Domingues, and Sonnie Brown appear in the Civilians production of Marin Gazzaniga's The Unbelieving, directed by Steve Cosson, at 59E59.
(© Richard Termine)

It's a common enough story: You spend thousands of dollars and years of your life chasing after your dream job only to discover that it's not really for you. Do you cut your losses and start over? Or, like Macbeth, do you opt to wade further into a life of lies? That's the choice facing the people profiled in Marin Gazzaniga's The Unbelieving, which is now making its world premiere with the Civilians at 59E59. These people aren't doctors, athletes, or actors — they're members of the clergy. And their reassessment of their life's purpose is also a reckoning with the very existence of God.

The script is based on the 2013 book Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola (both of whom appear above the title as producers). Like a lot of Civilians shows, The Unbelieving is told in the form of a documentary, with Linda (Nina Hellman) interviewing a series of individuals whose lines are drawn from real-life subjects.

There's Adam (David Aron Baker), a Church of Christ minister who began reading arguments against religion in order to convert nonbelievers, but ended up convincing himself that God is a fiction. Sherm (Richard Topol) is an Orthodox rabbi who found more satisfaction in scientific evidence than the Talmud. And prize-winning Imam Mohamed (Joshua David Robinson) had trouble reconciling the notion of an all-powerful Allah whose will leaves the door open for Satanic temptation.

David Aron Baker plays Adam in Marin Gazzaniga's The Unbelieving, directed by Steve Cosson, at 59E59.
(© Richard Termine)

Linda interviews a lapsed nun (Sonnie Brown), a Mormon bishop (Dan Domingues), and even a Pentecostal pastor who speaks in tongues (Jeff Biehl incanting one of the most hair-raising moments in the show). Leaving religion isn't just a matter of dumping superstition for these folks. It often means estrangement from family and friends, and even exile. This is not a comfortable position for a person seen as a pillar of a faith community.

Steve Cosson helms the production with simple efficiency: Scenes naturally flow from one to the next, with characters often staying on to react to the statements of other subjects, facilitating drama and interaction in a story that would otherwise just be between interviewer and interviewee. This reaches its apex in the dramatization of a secret online message board, which is visualized here as a support group. When the actors do exit and enter, it is through elegant bits of choreography (movement by Sean Donovan).

Andrew Boyce and Se Hyun Oh's set evokes the nondescript hotel rooms in which the interviews would have taken place (a tonal shift is signaled through the cracking of vertical blinds, with Lucrecia Briceno's natural light spilling in from upstage). Emily Rebholz and Miriam Kelleher's costumes give us a sense of character (the floral print shirt and roomy cardigan Brown wears is extra nunny). Christian Frederickson underscores much of the play with tense piano music, giving The Unbelieving the feeling of a true crime podcast that investigates apostacy and is very much on the side of the accused.

Sonnie Brown plays a lapsed nun in Marin Gazzaniga's The Unbelieving, directed by Steve Cosson, at 59E59.
(© © 2022 Richard Termine)

The actors, half of whom double roles, give us strong first impressions of their characters so that they are easily distinguishable (Brown is a master of finely nuanced dialect work). Topol gives an appropriately maddening performance as an Episcopal Priest who wants to dispute the findings of the study, but whose liberal theology is about as squishy as Jell-O. Perhaps that is why his faith remains while those from more brittle traditions felt the need to make a break. It's fascinating stuff, but at 65 minutes, we feel like we've watched only the first episode.

The unsatisfying ending of The Unbelieving has the ring of an AA meeting, suggesting that when people change their minds, they often trade one set of tribal rituals for another. One gets the sense that the real drama takes place after the events of the play, especially in a country in which politics increasingly fills the void left by organized religion.