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I’ve been thinking about evolution recently, since reading all about the historical debates on the subject in a class textbook (now thankfully, the class–and my college career–is a thing of the past). I’ve observed that the evolutionary nature of life carries over into society and culture worldwide. Some countries adapt quicker than others, and certain establishments, like religion, sometimes struggle to keep up with the shifting tides.

Certainly, some faiths have begun to change along with society, such as many sects of Christianity that have moved toward the inclusion of LGBTQIA members. Other religious groups, however, have continued to adhere closely to their ancient roots.

Looking back on South Coast Repertory’s production of Theresa Rebeck’s play Zealot, my thoughts stirred into words on this subject. Without giving too much away, I can tell you the story concerns members of the American and British diplomatic government, who scramble for control– and justice– when a young woman of orthodox faith publicly challenges the customs of her religion.

This frank and poignant new work takes the time to address many different perspectives on such a bold move as her heroine’s. The play reads less as a preachy diatribe for religious reform and more as an exploration of the entangled principles that lead to the core conflict.

In Zealot, those principles center around the evolution of custom and gender roles. The orthodox believer, holding fast to her faith, pushes for a new relationship with her god, one she argues reflects the progression of society and women’s equality with men more than the ancient custom. The young woman’s opponents argue that the customs are traditional for a reason, that they preserve the sanctity, respect, and dignity of their faith.

Both sides have their respective pros and cons. Yet when one belief clashes violently with the other, as it happens in this story, where must you draw the line? Rebeck never answers this question, instead leaving the audience to ponder the place of tradition, and of change. As the world grows smaller, and unique groups more interconnected than ever, we’re left to wonder: can the two ever co-exist peacefully?

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