A friend of mine points out that it doesn’t take much to transform a self-identified “good” person into an evil one. As a result, we should exercise our capacity for understanding those who do things that invite our indignaence and condemnation. There is no telling what circumstances will destroy our equanimity and what ones will push us to evil. These themes are explored in The Book of Bob, directed by Ellen David.
Middle-aged McGill professor Bob teaches the political theory of Dostoevsky, but his reading of Notes from the Underground only confirms his worldview of what constitutes a righteous man. Armored with his reading of the Russian literary luminary, Bob plows through his life and relationships with smug arrogance. In the tradition of the Book of Job, though, God and Satan strike a deal to test Bob out. Only instead of smiting him with boils and taking away his wealth and children, Bob is tested with far less extreme and far more familiar trials. His college-aged son is shacking up with a radical anarchist. His debilitated and crotchety father wants him to type a letter. His wife gets back a bad result from her colonoscopy. And, the straw that breaks the camel’s back — during his intro lecture on Dostoevsky, and presumably the semester, doe-eyed student Angie repeatedly interrupts class with noisy text messages from her best friend about a dying Boston Terrier.
Playwright Arthur Holden’s Book of Bob is not a play of extremes. The challenges presented Bob are softer than I expected. Satan gave Job boils and killed his children. Bob has interpersonal problems. Job curses his birthday and wishes to die, and argues with God. Bob’s immoral act in which he abandons his principles isn’t especially sinister.
Although I initially was peeved that Bob wasn’t made of very strong stuff, I soon saw the merits of a gentler approach. Bob suffers just enough frustrations to be uncomfortable, but never really descends into despair. He is threatened largely by uncertainty and his own personality. Unlike the superhuman patience of Job, Bob is very real and his sufferings are very real. Each little obstacle thrown in his path is a familiar first-world problem. In consequence, Bob’s biggest threats are self-created and he bears full responsibility. If he suffers potential doom, it comes from his own response to the situation. Bob is far easier to relate to than Job ever was.
The play’s greatest strength is its acting. I’d swear I had Ron Lea as a professor a hundred times over, so well does he nail the popular lecture-room professor. Every gesture, from how he opens his briefcase to his irritated stare at Angie is flawless. Lucinda Davis takes on every other character including God herself, Bob’s department chair, doe-eyed student Angie, and radical anarchist Venus, the quasi-girlfriend to Bob’s son. Like Lea, Davis builds complete entities with every character she embodies. I was struck most by her twitchy portrayal of Venus who was clueless about social graces but passionate about the actions attached to radical causes.
Equally intriguing is the use of video technology to enhance the action, chiefly by projecting close-ups of certain physical features of Davis’ characters. They were timed with Davis’ performances so that the visuals became a second way to communicate with the audience, and presumably with Bob. For example, when Bob squares off with his department chair, the projection features her crossed arms. These lend a visual richness to a sparse set. Though, of all the visuals, Director Ellen David and the crew maximize the potential of the visuals in the opening sequence that portrays something akin to the big bang.
All in all, this is a well-acted play that considers what pushes a man towards immoral acts and causes him to abandon his principles. Bob’s sufferings, his reactions, and even his eventual transformation are highly believable. Bob is easy to relate to and the story could easily reflect anyone’s crappy week. The story doesn’t go anywhere unexpected, other than that it focuses on the minimal: how little it takes to upend a man, rather than how much.
The Book of Bob is at the Centaur Theatre (453 St. Francis-Xavier) from February 4 – March 2, 2014.