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Set in Jerusalem in 1192, “Nathan the Wise” Is a Powerful Sermon on Religious Tolerance

(Robert W. McDowell, Triangle Arts & Entertainment) German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 didactic drama Nathan der Weise is set in Jerusalem in 1192, at the end of the Third Crusade, which was successful overall for the European invaders but failed to reconquer Jerusalem. It preaches a powerful sermon on religious tolerance that British dramatist Edward Kemp’s 2003 translation and adaption of Lessing’s play, called Nathan the Wise, underscores, maybe a little too heavily at times.

Nathan the Wise, now playing in Deep Dish Theater Company’s small black-box theater at the Dillard’s end of University Mall in Chapel Hill, NC, is a provocative play that challenges Jews, Muslims, and Christians to set aside the prejudices that they absorbed with their mothers’ milk and work together for the common good. But that is easier said than done, in the 12th century as it is in the 22nd century.

Playwright Edward Kemp makes Nathan the Wise a teachable moment, but there is a little too much romantic melodrama into the proceedings — in the form of a pair of star-crossed lovers: a boy who is ostentatiously Christian and a girl who is ostensibly Jewish.