'End Days'

"End Days" plumbs the depths of modern social anxiety while bringing a smile to your face with an irreverent bouquet of familiar characters, taken to politically incorrect extremes.

Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer, the story follows the dysfunctional Stein family in the seemingly apocalyptic days after 9/11.

"The writing is crisp and the juxtaposition of the characters is striking," says director Evalyn Hansen. And she's right.

Ashland Contemporary Theatre's production of the critically acclaimed "End Days" opened Friday at the Bellview Grange, 1050 Tolman Creek Road, and runs through May 22.

David Mannix is convincing in his role as the depressed, pajama-donning father who feels disconnected from the world and from his Gothic daughter Rachel (Danielle Pecoff). Religious fanatic Sylvia Stein (Diane Nichols) has found a friend in Jesus (Douglas Young), who is by her side daily for comfort or just to chat and enjoy a Starbucks coffee. Young also plays a hilarious Stephen Hawking, who visits Rachel in hallucinations to discuss the bigger questions of the universe: Where did we come from and why are we here?

To top off the odd-ball cast of characters, Laufer has thrown in Elvis impersonator Nelson. Max Gutfreund captures the optimism and naivete of the bullied neighbor boy who befriends the Stein family and falls for Rachel and slowly lifts Arthur Stein out of his gloom, one step at a time.

"Nelson causes little changes in the people around him," says ACT Artistic Director Jeannine Grizzard. "And the little changes create giant transformations."

Despite the in-your-face caricatures, Hansen says, "The story is really about love and faith. We have a dream cast. They're committed and funny. You can feel their warmth."

Nichols is believable as the pushy and hysterical mother who wants her family to welcome Jesus into their hearts before it's too late.

"Religion can bring people together, but fanaticism can break families apart," says Hansen, giving us a hint about the direction and message of the play.

The cast gets it across that they understand this abnormal family and that there's a struggle to find faith in the chaotic age we live in. They deliver Laufer's brilliant lines with conviction and keep the audience laughing and thinking throughout the play.

"The script is timely," says Hansen, who also directed "Larry's Best Friend" for ACT. "With so many wars on religion going on, we are able to look at things in a softer light. We can step back and examine the misery."

Sylvia Stein can't bare the anxiety of not knowing when the End Days will come. "People are looking for answers and certainties due to the extreme circumstances of the world," says Grizzard. "But the truth is, we don't get any certainties."

While the play is essentially a satire on religion in the 21st century, it's far from a hatchet job. The hopeful story invites you to relax and contemplate religion, life and love. It is a thoughtful exploration of eccentric personality types.

"End Days" will work your brain and stir your heart, but you won't walk away feeling down about the oddities of modern life.

Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays and 2 p.m. Sundays through May 22. Tickets are $15, $12 for seniors and students, and available at Paddington Station in Ashland, and Grocery Outlet in Medford. Visit www.ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org to purchase online.

Hannah Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Contact her at hannah.isis3@gmail.com.

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