Faith, fundamentalism, and Middle America

By Jerry Tallmer

Questioning characters can’t escape the all-seeing eye

Time and place are tennis balls to playwright Tim Blake Nelson. Back and forth, back and forth — volley, volley, volley, volley — oops! That one hit the chalk line and bounced back before the one three scenes earlier.

Why is 14-year-old Tom Spencer not talking to his aunt or to the Sheriff; or to anyone at all?

Why does parole officer Willard Sprague want to kill ex-con Jack Stillings with his own bare hands?

Why did sweet, naïve, love-struck Ainslee DuPree buy a round-trip Greyhound Bus ticket — just one — to Oklahoma City?

Why is Sheriff Sam Rogers of Kingfisher County, Oklahoma (a Christian of sorts) full of doubts and questions?

Why is Jack Stillings, fresh out of McAlester penitentiary, a Christian with no doubts at all — a true believer to the nth degree?

Why does 14-year-old Tom Spencer scrabble on the dirt of a clearing in the woods until he comes up with a glass eye…and not the eye of God, either?

You can take the playwright out of Oklahoma…

…but in 1996, when he was 32 years old, Tim Blake Nelson went back to Oklahoma to direct a movie from a play he had written called “Eye of God” — a very tough play indeed, and despite the folderol above, no tennis match whatsoever. It premiered at Seattle Rep in 1994.

The toughest play about the Holocaust I’ve ever seen is “The Grey Zone,” also by Nelson, Off-Off-Broadway eight or nine years ago — a vision of hell among the Sonderkommando of Jews who are put to work lugging the corpses of thousands of other Jews from the gas chambers to the crematoria before being slaughtered themselves.

Young Mr. Nelson made that one into a movie too.

But right now we are talking about “Eye of God,” the play — which after a successful new staging in Chicago has at last reached New York for a stand October 2-17 by a company that calls itself Theatre East (though the booking happens to be at the Kirk Theatre on West 42nd Street).

The show’s director, here as in Chicago, is Joseph Jefferson Award nominee Lisa Devine.

“There’ve been a lot of bids to do it in New York,” Nelson said, “but I thought it only fair to let her do it, with this tiny little company. I’ve been to watch a rehearsal, but I’m a little aloof from the production. It’s very much their turkey shoot.”

As the curtain rises (what curtain?), Sheriff Sam Rogers is thinking back to his long-ago wonderings about all those “beautiful, austere, terrifying” Bible stories of his youth, in particular the story of Abraham with knife aloft, ready to sacrifice his son Isaac for the greater glory of God. What must Isaac think, all through the rest of his life, the Sheriff has always wondered.

That was the starting place, the spark that triggered this drama — “an exploration of faith and fundamentalism in Middle America” — in the imagination of Tim Blake Nelson. “Why Isaac must be killed just to prove his father’s faith in God?”

Because oh yes, there is a corpse in “Eye of God.” and a pretty gruesomely despoiled one.

There is no indication in the play that Sheriff Rogers is (or is not) a Jew, but Tim Blake Nelson, despite that goyische handle and the aberration of being born (May 11, 1964) and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is indeed the Jewish son of an activist mother and geologist father.

“Well, it is Rosh Hashana,” Nelson said at one point during this interview, “and here we are after sundown, talking.”

His is an all-around talent: actor, writer, director, producer, singer, whatever the occasion calls for. His other directorial jobs include “O,” a high-school version of “Othello,” and, more recently, a film (from his own screenplay) starring Edward Norton as identical twins in rural Oklahoma (of all places) — “one a pot grower, the other a professor of classics.”

Title: “Leaves of Grass.” Get it?

Says the writer/director who thought up those twins: “Just two versions of myself; one who makes movies and plays, acts in movies and plays, directs, writes, and doesn’t know what happens next. The other, a husband and father of three” — sons, ages 4 to 10. Their mother, his wife, is actress and acting teacher Lisa Benavides. They live in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

He is in fact just back from the Toronto Film Festival, where “Leaves of Grass” made out rather well.

Here’s one reason I like the way Tim Blake Nelson writes. It’s hard to pick, because, as I said, everything in “Eye of God” bounces back and forth, flashing instant changes of mood and urgency until it suddenly interlocks six ways from Sunday.

AINSLEY (speaking of the greasy spoon where she’s a waitress): Red’s closing; down.

JACK STILLINGS: What? Red’s don’t close down.

AINSLEY: That’s what I said. And Lee said: ‘They do if nobody’s buyin’ burgers.’ It’s all right. It may take awhile, but I’ll find somethin’ else. Me’n Janice gon’ start lookin’ this weekend.

JACK: Why?


JACK: Ain’t I just said I got a job?


JACK: We’ll be fine.

AINSLEY: No, Jack. I started my period today.

JACK: You don’t got to say it outright like that.

AINSLEY: I’m sorry. It’s a natural thing.

JACK: I told the preacher I’d bring you to church Sunday.

AINSLEY: Why you told him that?

JACK: He keeps askin’ ’bout you.


JACK: He married us. In his church. Now you got to go.

AINSLEY: I ain’t been since I was fourteen.

JACK: Ainsley, I want a Christian home.

AINSLEY: It can be as Christian as you like. I just don’t want to go to church. I got bad memories from that part of my life.

I told the “Eye of God” playwright and film director that his work put me in mind of the Coen brothers. He said he didn’t think so. “There’s some of the same tension, but the vein isn’t humor.”

He’s not God, but keep your eye on this guy.