Lance Gardner (Man 1) and, background, l to r, Annette O’Toole (Miriam), Wayne Wilcox (Man 2), Elijah Alexander (Man 3), Shannon Tyo (Woman 2), and Denmo Ibrahim (Woman 1) in Berkeley Rep’s production of The Good Book directed by Lisa Peterson. Photo: Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Rep

The Good Book’s authors, Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, creators of Berkeley Rep’s 2012 An Iliad, take on a colossal subject, one that may not be capable of mastery in one evening of theater. The lengthy, chock-filled production creatively explores diverse facets and features of the Bible — its history, authors, compilation, impact on civilization and on two individuals who allow its significance and consequence to affect their lives.

This psychological drama focuses on the religious faith of its two main characters. Miriam (excellent Oscar and Emmy nominee Annette O’Toole) is an atheist biblical scholar who seems to have been traumatized as a child by her religious mother’s death and now can’t brook the least degree of faith in God and the Bible. Connor (first-rate Keith Nobbs) is an earnest, bright, closeted gay Catholic youth who loves his Bible as much as he hates himself. It is only after 20 years of soul searching that he comes to terms with the Bible’s teachings and his life.

These protagonists’ archetypal situations are appealing and attention-grabbing because their quests are universal and they are extraordinarily well-developed and well-portrayed. In between these two 21st-century characters’ scenes, wonderful supporting actors (Elijah Alexander, Lance Gardner, Denmo Ibrahim, Shannon Tyo, and Wayne Wilcox) appear on stage as persons who impacted the Old and New Testaments, including ancient Mesopotamians, St. Paul, medieval Irish monks, Johannes Gutenberg and a lavishly costumed King James.

The Good Book is two hours and 45 minutes long, plus an intermission. One wonders whether several of these historical interludes could have been eliminated without adversely affecting the thrust of the drama. Yes, I enjoyed Gutenberg explaining that he didn’t have room to include “balance” in his text, but I wouldn’t have missed the Irish monks singing dirges as they illustrated the Book of Kells, for example. Obie Award-winning writer and director Lisa Peterson’s sharp direction (Office Hour, Watch on the Rhine, It Can’t Happen Here) cannot be faulted. My frustration stems from a lack of editing.

It’s a bit unfair to compare Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s mesmerizing 100-minute bravura solo triumph, An Iliad, with their current offering since the two are so different in content, substance, and style. Yet, audiences should not expect the same extraordinary concentrated level of drama and force as was presented in 2012. In An Iliad, the playwrights had an anti-war bias but allowed the tale to be told in an intensely dramatic way.

In The Good Book, the authors are imposing their view, and, in exploring the history of the Bible, belaboring it, although the play’s breadth may possibly engender later thought and discussion. This ambitious work progresses from good to better as it continues into the second act, but, alas, never reaches its best until the end of the second act, when Miriam and Connor meet accidentally. Then The Good Book reaches the elevated level of tautness and humanity that had been missing earlier.

The Good Book is playing at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre through June 9. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...