With the premiere tonight of “God's Favorite,” director John Tolley comes full circle on what he describes as a journey he didn't even know he was on.
Tolley, formerly minister of drama at First Presbyterian Church, previously directed the play in 1988, a fact current church leaders didn't know when they reached out to him about helming the production to open what the theater is calling its 2021-22 “UnSeason.”
The church wanted to start its season with a comedy because people have been struggling lately, but something that still spoke to spiritual values, Tolley says.
He describes the Neil Simon play as satiric bordering on slapstick. In a modern setting, the morality tale tells the story of Job as successful businessman Joe Benjamin (Joe B. – get it?), a devout man who credits all his success to God has his faith tested when a messenger from God appears to him and the Benjamins' comfortable life is lost.
The play includes lessons of gratitude and gratefulness, and highlights the struggles of not having necessities such as socks and underwear. First Presbyterian is using that as an opportunity to support South Wayne and Washington elementary schools students with a clothing drive.
“No one in America should have to go without the necessities – especially socks and underwear- when going back to school,” says resident pastor the Rev. Carrie Winebrenner. “So, we are inviting and encouraging our patrons to bring brand new youth-sized socks and undies to add to the donation pile.”
The play stars Reuben Albaugh as Joe. The cast also includes Bob Ahlersmeyer, Terri Amstutz, Joseph Adams, Catherine Ahlersmeyer, Christian Messmann, Scott Rumage and Elaine Dec.
Simon took on a great feat tackling the Bible's story of Job, says Tolley who spent more than two decades teaching in a theology school and jokes that even theologians run from the Book of Job. But at the bottom of the Biblical story Tolley sees the lesson that there isn't some entity pulling the strings to make your life good or bad – we have the freedom to respond to what is thrown in our path.
The director is amazed at how Simon takes the hardest parts of the Biblical story and pivots them to comedy, such as when Joe's wife turns to him and deadpans, “God isn't nice.”
When it opened on Broadway in 1974, the play was directed by Michael Bennett with assistant director Bob Avian, who died this year. Tolley and Avian met around 15 years ago and became friends – in fact, Avian was one of the last dinner guests Tolley and his husband had over before the pandemic began. But in all those years, Tolley had no idea of Avian's connection to “God's Favorite.”
There's a sense of awe for Tolley to be coming back to the play all these years later.
“It's been kind of a real spiritual journey for me, too,” he says. “I had no idea that this piece of theater had touched so many aspects of my life and so many people in my life.”
If you go
What: “God's Favorite”
When: 8 p.m. today, Saturday and Aug. 27 and 28; 2 p.m. Sunday and Aug. 29
Where: First Presbyterian Church Theatre, 300 W. Wayne St.
Admission: $16 adults, $8 children and students with ID; FirstPresFortWayne.org/theater, ArtsTix Community Box Office at 303 E. Main St., 422-4226 or at the theater one hour before each performance