by: PHOTO BY TRAVIS NODURFT - The cast of 'End Days' features, from left, Michael Lissman, Doren Elias, Cynthia Smith-English and Emily Robison.What can you say about a play that is about the end of the world?

“I’ve had the hardest time explaining this play to people — they are all afraid,” said director Annie Rimmer, of “End Days,” Clackamas Repertory Theatre’s final play of the season.

But, Rimmer insisted, the play — which opens Friday, Sept. 21 — is “really, really funny. I don’t know how to say it enough — it is hilarious.”

The plot revolves around the Steins, a Jewish family newly relocated to the suburbs of New York City, several years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“It is about how we cope; how we need each other,” Rimmer said.

Author Deborah Zoe Laufer wrote the play as a commentary about how people keep trying to choose between science and religion in order to find comfort or answers, Rimmer said.

Religious family

This dilemma is personified by the quirky characters who inhabit “End Days.”

First up is Sylvia, played by CRT’s managing director, Cynthia Smith-English; Sylvia was raised in the Jewish faith, but has become a born-again Christian who is convinced the world is going to end in a few days.

“She was pretty desperately seeking solace after 9/11, so she became part of an evangelical Christian religion, and she now has a personal relationship with Jesus,” Smith-English said. “She is terrified by all the violence in the world, and she wants to be saved and raptured, but she doesn’t want to go without her family; she wants them to be raptured with her.”

Sylvia tries to get her husband, Arthur, and daughter, Rachel, to repent, and her actions are met with great resistance.

Arthur worked in the World Trade Center and was able to get safely out of the building on 9/11, but his 65 employees were killed.

“Therein lies his guilt and sleepless nights. It has been several years, but he has continued to go into his shell; everything seem exhausting,” noted Doren Elias, who plays the role.

Arthur’s coping mechanism is withdrawal; he can’t go shopping and he can’t go outside.

He is sticking to his Jewish roots, and finds his wife’s passion for being a born-again Christian “way out in left field.”

Meanwhile, Arthur and Sylvia’s teenage daughter, Rachel, begins to dress as a goth, and that is her coping mechanism, said Emily Robison.

Goths observe and consider; they are accepting of the things around them and are very logical, Robison said.

Rachel turns to science, and develops a relationship with Stephen Hawking, a character only she can see, just as her mother turns to Jesus, a character only she can see.

“People need religion as something to turn to when they are lost; people need science when they need answers,” Robison added.

Elvis, Jesus and Stephen Hawking

Leaping into the lives of this family comes the 16-year-old boy next door, who loves Elvis so much that he dresses like Elvis — white jumpsuit Elvis.

“He wears the iconic jumpsuit and almost feels uncomfortable when he’s not wearing it,” said Michael Lissman, who plays Nelson Steinberg.

Both of his parents have passed away, and he finds himself living with two stepparents; he looks at the Stein family as a substitute family, and fancies himself in love with Rachel.

Nelson’s mother was a big Elvis fan, and bought her son the jumpsuit when he was young; once his mother passed away, he simply continued to buy the suit, in bigger sizes, as he grew up.

“That is his coping mechanism,” Lissman said.

“He’s kind of an outcast, and it seems like he should be a sad character, but he is super upbeat. That is what ignites the change in this family, and they come to appreciate each other more,” he said.

Lissman added that “the play deals with religious themes, and I almost become the guardian angel for this family; it shows that a savior can be in any form, even a goofy kid.”

And now for something completely different — or someone completely different: Jayson Shanafelt, who plays both Jesus and Hawking.

“I come from a Christian background, so I am trying to portray a Jesus that people who genuinely love him will say, ‘Yes, that is Jesus.’ I’m playing him not just from a secular view and not a purely humorous version,” Shanafelt said.

As for playing Hawking, he said, “You are dealing with thousands of hours of video on YouTube, and he speaks in a very distinct voice that is not human. He was easier to research and harder to portray.”

Shanafelt added, “This play is about how people handle not just tragedy, but the story of their own lives. Some shut down, some turn to religion and some turn to tangible science. It is a signal to the audience that there is something deeper going on here, that the same actor portrays both Jesus and Stephen Hawking.”

Wheelchair a challenge

Shelly Mortimer has met and overcome many challenges during the course of providing props for 28 shows, both for Clackamas Repertory Theatre and Clackamas Community College, but finding a high-tech wheelchair for the actor playing Stephen Hawking was a bit of a headache.

“I knew it was going to be hard to find and expensive. It had to have a customized screen and an oxygen tank,” she said.

She told her story to Mark Henley, owner of Shamrock Medical Inc. on Foster Road in Portland, and he “went crazy, and said, ‘I’ll build that for you,’ ” Mortimer said.

The timing was just right, as Henley had a basic electric wheelchair on the showroom floor, and he agreed to customize it and allow CRT to use it free of charge for the run of the show.

The chair is a basic tilt-in-space para-wheelchair, Henley said, noting that its particular style is like a reclining chair.

“It is set up for somebody who needs to offset the pressure on bones or body; for someone who needs to sit in the chair for a long period of time,” he said.

Jayson Shanafelt plays the role of Hawking, and Henley adjusted the chair to conform to the actor’s body and retro-fitted a monitor onto the chair.

“It is actually an electronic chessboard, but the audience won’t know the difference,” he said.

He decided to donate the chair and his time to CRT, he said, because he likes to give back to the community, and because, “sometimes you just do the right thing.”by: PHOTO BY DICK TRTEK - Jayson Shanafelt, pictured above as Stephen Hawking, said he felt 'euphoric' the first time he sat in the customized wheelchair.

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