Fighting Fate

David Strathairn is obsessed librarian in 'Lintel'

The search for meaning is a daunting subject for any play, but that hasn’t stopped playwrights from tackling the topic over and over. From the very beginning of the dramatic art form, the best plays have been those that pit humans against the ravages of fate.

Playwright Glen Berger (co-writer of Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway and the Emmy-winning animated series The Octonauts) has long been attracted to such big questions, and in his sneaky philosophical fantasy Underneath the Lintel (through Nov. 17 at American Conservatory Theater, in San Francisco), he addresses weighty issues while maintaining a light, comic touch.

A one-actor show, this mostly lively production of Underneath the Lintel features stage and screen star David Strathairn (Lincoln, Good, Night and Good Luck, Dolores Claiborne) playing the befuddled librarian as he describes his journey around the world in search of the anonymous gentleman who recently returned a library book 113 years after it was checked out. Strathairn is marvelous in the role, straddling an array of simultaneous emotions and conflicting impulses.

Directed by Carey Perloff, furnished within the cluttered backstage of an enormous run-down theater, the play begins as a straightforward comedy but gradually moves into unexpectedly absurdist terrain, as the librarian displays the various scraps and pieces of “lovely evidence” he’s collected on his obsessive adventure around the globe. It bogs down a bit in all the detail but builds up to a heck of a twist: the librarian’s far-fetched conclusion that the globe-hopping mystery man with such astonishing longevity might actually be the mythical figure known as “the Wandering Jew.”

An odd but enduring bit of medieval trivia, the Wandering Jew—an ever-evolving ancient Christian cautionary tale—describes a cobbler from Jerusalem who, fearing the Romans, refuses to allow Jesus of Nazareth to rest on his doorstep while carrying his cross to Calvary, and as punishment, the cobbler is forced by God to wander the earth for all eternity.

Where the librarian—and playwright Berger—take this tale might surprise those Medieval gentlemen who originally envisioned it. Berger uses the story to ask hard questions about what lengths to which some people will go whenever God or fate or the simple twists and turns of life hand them a raw deal.

In Underneath the Lintel, the answer is as inspiring as it is thought-provoking.

Rating (out of five):★★★★

Sonoma County Library