Rabbi Sam: Eternity is Now

It takes Charlie Varon and the dead founder of a Jewish congregation’s wife to create an unstoppable religious reality in Varon’s Rabbi Sam, written and performed by Varon and developed and directed by David Ford, with music composed by Bruce Barth. Over the course of two hours and ten minutes, Varon inhabits 12 characters, including Rabbi Sam Isaac, a former New York tax attorney who recently lost his wife, his ten-year old son, Noah, and various Board members of Congregation B’nai Am, a sleepy Jewish congregation in Semanitas, California. Varon’s monologue, steeped in humor and bound to religious philosophy, is so engaging it’s easy to overlook the tremendous depth of talent that brings his world to our feet.

A frenzied squall of jazz pierces the air as the lights come up on a small, round stand beside a straight-backed chair, where Varon sits as Bob Lew, president and chairman of the congregation’s Board, discussing the less than desirable circumstances of Rabbi Sam’s tenure. Rabbi Sam is a different sort of rabbi, a bit of a misfit, young, passionate about Judaism and tied to his calling. The plot thickens as each of the characters evolve and loyalties are forged. With clever, sophisticated strategies and the political savvy of a tax lawyer, Rabbi Sam stops at nothing to gain permanent status in the Congregation, from where he can promote the resurgence of Judaism as a meaningful religious identity rather than to complacently mind the dying tradition it has become at B’nai Am, where the average age of congregation members is 60.

A few members of the Board, headed by Jerry Gomberg, realize that getting rid of the new rabbi is their only option to restore integrity to the congregation. Jerry calls Sarah Schimmel, the widow of Steve Schimmel, founder of Congregation B’Nai Am, to a secret meeting of Board members, but not before Rabbi Sam has insinuated himself into her home. For all of Rabbi Sam’s impassioned, gut-wrenching sermons, which are complete masterpieces, the truth is nowhere nearer at hand than when he is confronted by Sarah, a resolute atheist who generously tolerated and supported her late husband’s religious devotion but by no means shared it. She observes Rabbi Sam’s role in his marriage and family and pointedly advises him to “apologize to your dead wife”. The lady is blunt and has no use for euphemism, religious or otherwise.

Varon’s characters are familiar and deliciously real, from the elderly, wise Auschwitz survivor to the surgically disabled Myron who cannot arrive at a complete word, much less a decisive statement. When Rabbi Sam’s volatile religiosity merges into simple human dynamics, the eternity of his parables is fundamentally realized. Rabbi Sam is a gripping and entertaining experience that should not be missed.

Rabbi Sam plays through December 12 at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco. Tickets and times may be obtained by telephone at 800-838-3006 and online at themarsh.org.

- Eryka M. Fraczek
Member, SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle