Harrowing is the essential word when describing “God’s Work,” the emotionally scorching Albany Park Theater Project (APTP) story of child abuse and religious fanaticism now in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre.
Remarkable is the followup word for this work of intense spiritual exorcism being performed by actors ages 14 to 18 whose vocal, physical, dramatic and ensemble skills can easily compare to those of the professionals in such acclaimed international troupes as Kneehigh (now visiting the Chicago Shakespeare Theater) and Complicite.
Finally, for those who earlier this season caught the Goodman production of Rebecca Gilman’s “Luna Gale,” “God’s Work” may serve as a revelation, suggesting the radically different ways in which similar themes can be dramatized. While Gilman employed a brainy, fervent, realistic style, APTP takes a ritualistic approach that is breathtaking in its choreographed ferocity.
First devised by APTP in 2006, and performed at its fieldhouse home, “God’s Work” is rooted in a true story told by a 14-year-old ensemble member of that period. It has since been revised by the team of collaborators so crucial to this company’s seamless vision, including directors David Feiner, Rosanna Rodriguez Sanchez, Stephanie Paul and Maggie Popadiak (the latter two also are co-choreographers), and designers Izumi Inaba (who has devised subtly straightjacketed costumes), Scott C. Neale (whose set conjures a prisonlike basement with a steep stairway leading to a shrouded upper room), Jeremy Getz (lighting), Mikhail Fiksel (composer and sound design) and Brandon and Lacy Katherine Campbell (for a “lucky baby” puppet).
But it is the fearless, highly disciplined performers who grab your heart and imagination here as they spin the pitch black tale of a hellish household that operates in the name of a higher power. The tyrannical father (Vincent K. Meredith as an eerily controlling, criminally fundamentalist Bible thumper), wields horrifying power over his continually pregnant, abused and silent wife, Joanna (the quietly powerful Kyra Mae Robinson), and his huge brood of children. One daughter, Rachel (the altogether exquisite Maidenwena Alba), has the luck and imagination to break free. Her dozen or so siblings comfort each other as best they can, but mostly march in lockstep to their father’s commands, and submit to his brutal, psychopathic punishments.
The storyline doesn’t quite track in terms of Rachel’s age when she is rescued by a loving couple said to be her aunt and uncle, but this hardly matters. From the moment each new child is born and clambers down the stairs into a basket, to the siblings’ nightmarish lineups for paternal abuse, to Rachel’s true “baptism of love” in a bathtub, you sense the truth. You become captive to the very worst of it all, with just enough of a healing balm of love offered as redemption.