Faith takes the stage in pro­duc­tion of ‘The Loser Let­ters’

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Kathryn Jean Lopez is se­nior fel­low at the Na­tional Re­view In­sti­tute, ed­i­tor-at-large of Na­tional Re­view On­line and found­ing di­rec­tor of Catholic Voices USA. She can be con­tacted atk­lopez@na­tion­al­re­view.com.

Olympic gym­nas­tic Chellsie Mem­mel is “on stage in a com­pletely new way,” as she puts it, later this month in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal. She’s star­ring in “The Loser Let­ters,” a play that makes a creative re­sponse to the “new athe­ism” and rad­i­cal sec­u­lar­ism cur­rently gain­ing steam in our cul­ture and en­croach­ing into pub­lic life.

The play is adapted and di­rected by Jef­frey Fiske, a play­wright who de­scribes the show as a young woman wrestling with Faith, her in­ner de­mon. Mem­mel’s char­ac­ter, the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of the “in­ner de­mon,” is a non-speak­ing role, re­ly­ing en­tirely on the prompts of a young fe­male char­ac­ter named A.F. Chris­tian and chore­og­ra­phy — thus the per­fect role for a gym­nast.

A.F. Chris­tian is the cre­ation of Mary Eber­stadt, who, some­time in 2008, told me about her idea for a series of let­ters writ­ten from the van­tage point of a young woman strug­gling with athe­ism and ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis. We pub­lished them on Na­tional Re­view On­line, and Ig­natius Press later pub­lished it as a book.

This no­tion of the Shadow, that “de­mon” Fiske ref­er­ences,though, was never in the print it­er­a­tions — it’s the fruit of the creative ge­nius of Fiske. As Eber­stadt ex­plains: “There are su­per­nat­u­ral el­e­ments to A.F.’s tale that are left mostly im­plicit in the book un­til the end. What Jeff has done is bring them to life and make them ex­plicit in the form of the Shadow. It makes the pro­duc­tion abound with ki­netic en­ergy — both A.F.’s and (that of)her shad­owy dop­pel­ganger. The dia­lec­tic of their move­ments is a show in it­self.”

A.F. is very much one of the “nones” of her gen­er­a­tion — a mil­len­nial who steers clear of or­ga­nized re­li­gion. And yet, Eber­stadt says: “A.F. struggles with the re-pa­gani­za­tion of the world. She’s a pil­grim who doesn’t even know she’s on a pil­grim­age-- be­cause she’s been robbed by the sec­u­lar cul­ture of the very lan­guage of sin and redemption. Re­cov­er­ing that lost lan­guage is a big part of her jour­ney.”

The premise of “The Loser Let­ters” is that “we live in uniquely bro­ken times,” Eber­stadt says. Per­haps one has to look no fur­ther than the cur­rent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion to drink in that sober­ing,sad­den­ing, mad­den­ing re­al­ity. Eber­stadt, echo­ing Pope Fran­cis’ con­dem­na­tion of our throw­away so­ci­ety that sees even hu­man be­ings as disposable, re­flects: “In to­day’s sec­u­lar­ized cul­ture, a de­formed,con­sumerist view of hu­man­ity rules. This causes heart­break and in­jus­tice on a mas­sive scale — es­pe­cially by un­der­min­ing ro­mance and love, as the story of the pro­tag­o­nist goes to show.”

In the series of let­ters that A.F. writes, you hear a “strug­gle to in­tuit and un­der­stand what peo­ple in more so­phis­ti­cated eras were taught early on: that trans­gres­sion and penance and redemption aren’t chimeras from times past; they’re present-day ex­is­ten­tial re­al­i­ties. Lots of peo­ple in our time have learned the same truth the hard way, as she does. Her suc­cess in mak­ing sense of a bro­ken past is what drives the ac­tion of the book and the play.”

Fiske tells me that he is “al­ways ex­cited about cre­at­ing live the­ater in a way that peo­ple can’t ex­pe­ri­ence by stay­ing home and watch­ing a screen.” If you con­sider the ex­tent to which screens rule our lives, there is dis­or­der afoot. And “The Loser Let­ters” takes to the stage — it de­buts at The Catholic Univer­sity of Amer­ica on Sept. 29 — at a time when we are in dire threat of los­ing so much of our her­itage.

May such a spark keep us from los­ing our minds, souls, and com­mon iden­tity as cre­ated be­ings with some­thing more to live for than the ma­te­rial world and even pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. Wouldn’t that be just about the great­est news ever, if we lived as though we trea­sured such a faith-based re­al­ity and pro­tected those who did,even if we all didn’t quite see it the same way?

Kathryn Lopez Colum­nist

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