The Road To Damascus at The Little Victory Theatre is the perfect, family-friendly show for all seasons, especially for Easter time. TONY MONACO gives us a wonderfully realized Saul/Paul, whose greatness emerged in a lifelong struggle with his own turbulent emotions.
As many of you may know, “the road to Damascus” refers to Rabbi Saul of Tarsus’ sudden, spiritual transformation just before he arrived at Damascus (New Testament, Chapter 9 of Acts.) Before his change, Saul was determined to arrest any Christians he found and bring them back to Jerusalem, where they could well be killed for their beliefs. After his change, he was firmly on the road to becoming Saint Paul the Apostle, one of Christianity’s most influential figures.
Tony Monaco had his own “road to Damascus” experience that gave him the strength to turn away from alcohol and drugs. His life-changing experience inspired him to tell the story of Paul the Apostle, toward whom he now had a strong empathy.
Tony Monaco focused all the talent that he had exercised on the Broadway stage and Hollywood film sets: he wrote the book, composed the music, penned the lyrics and fashioned the choreography. As well as direct the musical’s sole actor…himself. As a result, The Road To Damascus displays a unity of vision that is rare even among creative teams that mesh well together.
The musical begins with an alcoholic actor singing a soliloquy that mixes hope and despair. (“Damascus Road.”) Back in his dressing room, he’s disconsolate. He can’t remember his opening line. Hating himself, he takes a drink. And then something happens. Drink no longer tempts him. He remembers his lines. And he goes on to play Saul/Paul.
Tony Monaco’s Saul/Paul is compelling both as the ruthless persecutor of Christians pre-Damascus as well as the passionate leader of Christians post-Damascus. One of the ironies of Paul’s life is that he came to experience the anger and wrath toward him as a Christian that he had earlier displayed before other Christians.
Tony Monaco makes the music and settings reveal Paul’s ongoing inner transformation rather than portray the dramatic “wide-screen” event that often punctuated his life (from shipwrecks to large scale riots.) The musical also shows Paul amazed that the Christian community could forgive and embrace him.
For me, an interesting subtext of the play was the tension between religious passion and religious tolerance. The more passionate you are about the truth of a religious belief, the harder it is to be tolerant of those with an opposing belief, as illustrated all too well by Saul of Tarsus.
But then what should be the alternative? Should we trivialize and marginalize religion? It’s easy to advocate religious tolerance if you believe religion contains nothing worth fighting over. This is certainly a convenient stance for any society wanting no distractions from the pursuit of riches and pleasure. But then we risk trivializing ourselves if tolerance comes at the expense of depth.
Saul’s transformation into Paul offers a better way: leaven your beliefs with love. Can we challenge people without coercing them, out of a spirit of genuine concern rather than a desire to dominate?
A society where one’s beliefs are questioned will be at times uncomfortable. But that is the price of maintaining a society that lives up to Jefferson’s words: “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is free to combat it.” It is also the price of avoiding the indictment in Revelations 3:15-17:
15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. (NIV)
Saul/Paul was never lukewarm. And that is perhaps why the person who had been one of Christianity’s greatest foes was not “spat out” but was instead transformed into one of Christianity’s greatest champions.