- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 3, 2001

The moral of Theater of the First Amendment's "Nathan the Wise" might be simple and obvious, but the plot itself is full of twists and fateful turns.
The play, adapted by Paul D'Andrea from a work by G.E. Lessing, takes up the issue of religious tolerance in Jerusalem during a truce in the Third Crusades. The question it poses: Can't we all just get along? The answer it offers: We can, as long as no one claims to have "the one true faith."
Among the large cast of characters is a progressive Muslim warrior prince and his scheming sister; a Christian patriarch who needs to be convinced of his faith; a Christian knight Templar bewildered by the carnage of his holy mission; a brainy young woman with an Electra complex; a Jewish businessman who makes no claim to be wise; and an older couple kept apart by their religions.
Saladin (Craig Wallace), a Muslim who holds power in Jerusalem, threatens death to anyone who breaks the truce he has decreed but spares the life of a Templar because he reminds him of his brother.
Determined to be "improver of the world," Saladin believes Muslims, Christians and Jews can live together in peace, which doesn't sit well with his embittered sister, Sittah (Kimberly Schraf).
She wants Saladin to kick the Christians out of the Holy City and confiscate the considerable wealth of the Jew Nathan (Mitchell Hebert). Seems that as improver of the world, Saladin dips into the treasury to give money to the poor, and that has left them, as the Treasurer Al-Hafi (Carlos J. Gonzalez) says, "wiped out."
Nathan himself whose true passion is his equally devoted daughter, Recha (Maia DeSanti) gives his fortune away to the poor irrespective of their religion, but will not give to the mosque or the church. That raises the ire and suspicion of the church's patriarch, Heraklios (Ralph Cosham).
In one of those fateful twists, the Templar whose life Saladin spared saves Recha from a house fire. Curd von Stauffen (Kyle Prue) and Recha immediately feel connected to each other.
The complications of love and religion are established early, through the musings of Recha's Christian nurse, Daya (Lynnie Raybuck). Recha needles Daya about her longtime flirtation with Al-Hafi, and Daya says nothing can ever come of it because she's a Christian and he's a Muslim.
The nurse encourages the romance between Recha and Curd, telling the young woman that when she meets the man she loves, her knees will go weak. Where Nathan is Recha's reason, Daya is her heart.
Though he's intrigued by Recha, Curd hates what he calls the arrogance of Jews who believe they are the chosen ones. But Nathan wins Curd over with his gentle humanism.
Through other plot devices too complex to enumerate, Nathan has to stand trial before Saladin and Heraklios, where he is asked what the one true faith is. Under the laws of the truce, anyone who speaks against his own religion, or against Islam and Christianity, will be put to death.
Nathan demonstrates how wise he is by telling a parable about a father, his three sons and a ring that would decide which son would take over for the father after his death. Not wanting to hurt any of them, he had three identical rings drawn up so no one would be able to distinguish the "true" ring.
It's a courtroom scene with a hefty bit of moralizing, but it like the rest of the play moves along quickly under the direction of Tom Prewitt.
The actors do an impressive job of avoiding stock characterization.
As Nathan, Mr. Hebert does his best not to be too saintly. He's sage but also sardonic, and he shows a very human side with fear and anger about his trial.
Mr. Gonzalez's Al-Hafi, an incorrigible thief but good man, also is fun to watch. Al-Hafi, unburdened by righteousness, utters some of the show's best one-liners.
Daya is supposed to provide much of the comic relief mainly through her malapropisms (she says "hereford" for "heretic") and constant complaints that she's never allowed to speak, even though everyone around her says she never stops talking.
The "bad guy" in the play, Heraklios, is played with starched imperiousness by Mr. Cosham in a restrained but strong performance.
Early in the play, Heraklios says that because he can't be sure of his faith, he must be certain.
And as Saladin says throughout, "Certainty is murder."

WHAT: Theater of the First Amendment's production of "Nathan the Wise"
WHERE: TheaterSpace at George Mason University's Fairfax campus, Braddock Road and Route 123
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Nov. 18
TICKETS: $20 and $25
PHONE: 703/218-6500 or online at www.tickets.com

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