‘Visions of Right’ explores options for responding to hate

Review by Matthew Waterman
Herald Times Bloomington
May 21, 2017

Many Americans (if not most) have at least a passing familiarity with the hate-filled spectacles of the Westboro Baptist Church. The small congregation in Topeka, Kansas, is infamous nationwide for picketing anything that doesn’t align with its narrow and bigoted worldview.

The members of Westboro Baptist Church stage demonstrations in the most provocative settings possible, where they hoist signs proclaiming God’s hatred for Jews, adulterers and gays (although they typically use another four-letter word to refer to that last group).

When I heard that the Jewish Theatre of Bloomington was staging a play about hate and bigotry based on the Westboro Baptist Church, I was a tad skeptical.

I wondered if the Westboro Baptist Church was too easy a target. We don’t need a play to tell us it promotes bigoted beliefs. It might be more interesting to take aim at subtler forms of hate, rather than fringe lunatics, I thought.

My concerns were easily dispelled by Thursday night’s opening performance of Marcia Cebulska’s “Visions of Right.” The play isn’t so much a case of Cebulska pointing a finger at extremist bigots and showing how nasty they are as it is a nuanced exploration of how we should deal with hate when we’re forced to confront it.

“Visions of Right” follows the journey of a photographer named Christina Romanek. Christina and her husband, an eye doctor named Oscar “Oz” Singer, live in New York until a traumatic incident propels them to Topeka: Christina is randomly shot in the chest by a neo-Nazi skinhead.

There’s no obvious reason why Christina should be particularly vulnerable to hate. She’s white. She’s not Jewish. She’s not gay. Yet that unadulterated hate follows her to Kansas, both in the form of her continuing trauma over the shooting and in the form of harassment from the Zion Primitive Baptist Church (the analogue for the Westboro Baptist Church in this play).

While Christina is not Jewish, her husband Oz is. In addition, her best friend is a gay art gallery owner named Larry Uffizi. The Zion Primitive Baptist Church members object to her associations with those two, and they aren’t too fond of artists or intellectuals like Christina in the first place.

Christina is consumed by fear of those who hate her. She hides her wounds from Oz. When the Zion Primitive Baptist Church pickets her photography show opening, she runs home in fear, leaving Larry and Oz to chat awkwardly about why they aren’t friends.

During a transformative and heart-wrenching trip to Auschwitz in Poland (heart-wrenching for the audience as well as the performers), Christina happens upon an image that both renews her fears and sets in motion a process of conquering them: she sees a picture of an Auschwitz victim with the Polish spelling of her name (Krystyna Romanek).

One thing leads to another, and Christina heads directly into the Zion Primitive Baptist Church to meet its leader, Reverend Noah Jones (modeled on the late Fred Phelps Sr., of Westboro Baptist). She has a camera around her neck and a gun in her purse.

The journey Christina goes through is unique and compelling. Oz also experiences a transformation in “Visions of Right,” coming to terms with shame he carries from his past. Cebulska’s play even gives the audience a more refined perspective on Rev. Jones and his followers, without absolving them of responsibility for their bile.

In an overall quite interesting play, there is one aspect that does not feel fully formed. Throughout much of the show, Christina and Oz’s marriage is strained. In the end, while Christina resolves her personal crisis, the crisis between her and her husband is seemingly glossed over. Perhaps Christina’s personal troubles were all that stood in the way of a healthy marriage, but in the first act it seems that their problems go beyond that.

“Visions of Right” features a very solid cast under the adept direction of Martha Jacobs. Gerard Pauwels’ Rev. Jones is a detestable figure throughout, but his scene with Christina is oddly disarming. By the end, he’s more laughable than formidable. Adam Decker’s Larry is a welcome and amusing presence.

The two best performances are by the leading couple, Abby Lee (as Christina) and Chris J. Handley (as Oz). Both actors are down-to-Earth and easy to relate to, while very moving in the more somber scenes.

The Jewish Theatre of Bloomington’s “Visions of Right” is an uplifting and thought-provoking piece that is sure to have audience members pondering their own “visions of right.”

If you go

WHO: The Jewish Theatre of Bloomington.

WHAT: “Visions of Right” by Marcia Cebulska.

WHERE: Rose Firebay in the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center, 122 S. Walnut St.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday.

TICKETS: $18-$20. Available online at bctboxoffice.org or by phone at 812-323-3020.