The time is 1192. The place, Jerusalem. But the sepia photo that dominates the set of “Nathan the Wise” shows bombed-out ancient buildings, one with a satellite dish on the shell of a roof.
So yes, Classic Stage Company wants us to make connections between our fractious time and the plea for religious tolerance that German literary philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote in 1778. To director Brian Kulick’s credit, however, his thoughtful production treads lightly over the obvious reasons that his tiny, vital theater has revived this rarity with just enough overlapping eras and styles to make the point.
Or, as F. Murray Abraham, as our excellent Nathan, says to hush the babble of Christians, Muslims and Jews at the start of the play, “That’s enough, please, we have a story to tell. It happened long ago, but it might be worth hearing today.”
This is, after all, a work censored during Lessing’s lifetime. It is also one of the first plays performed in Germany after World War II.
In Edward Kemp’s lucid and engrossing translation, the play combines straightforward storytelling with the otherworldly charm of a fable. We first meet the cast wearing modern street clothes and sitting on simple chairs that face an expanse of rugs (designed by Tony Straiges). One by one, characters emerge as they put on 12th century costumes (by Anita Yavich).
Abraham, not always prone to theatrical understatement, portrays the successful Jewish merchant with calm, tender humanism, rising only to aching, intense emotions when the contradictions in religious bigotry overwhelm him. Austin Durant is the benevolent sultan, who summons Nathan to decide which faith God loves the most. Meanwhile, Nathan’s beloved daughter (the lyrical Erin Neufer) pines for the Christian knight (the impressively ardent Stark Sands), who saved her from a house fire. She originally believed he was an angel, inventively fantasized by the cast in one of the production’s few moments of conspicuous stagecraft.
Lessing, an influential pioneer in the Enlightenment, was not simplistic in his justification for tolerance. His play is exactly what, every so often, this theater dedicated to re-imagining classical repertory for modern audiences should do.