Librarians are a much maligned lot. It seems those fussbudgets with the shushing fingers spend too much time on the details to enjoy the big picture. But playwright Glen Berger has found something wonderful in the humble librarian. His one-character show Underneath the Lintel, now running at Main Street Theater, reveals that librarians, and all the minutiae they're so fond of cataloguing, can tell us a lot about the universe and how to live our lives.
Part of the charm in Berger's show is its simplicity. A slide projector, a screen, a tape deck, a wobbly table and a big old alligator suitcase are all the items Berger's one character (identified in the program as simply The Librarian) needs to tell his story, which he calls "An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences."
Straight-backed and straitlaced, the aging book minder, played by Jim Bernhard, looks every bit the prim tormenter of noisy children that we might remember from sleepy Saturday-afternoon trips to the "biblioteque," as he calls his place of business. He even wears his date stamper on a string around his neck. But we soon learn to have great respect for his little tool, because "it contains every date there ever was." In fact, "all the trials and joys of history...every birth and death" are in that little stamp.
Dates are central to this story. They're what start off this lowly librarian on his long and heartfelt journey around the world and back again. Before his travels, it was his job to gather up the library books dropped in the overnight box. He doesn't much like it when folks turn in overdue books in the drop without paying their fines. And when he discovers a book that's 113 years overdue, he goes apoplectic.
His life's mission becomes finding the villain who would do such a dastardly thing, so that he can send off a bill for the mega-fine of a lifetime. Of course, our brave librarian doesn't have much to go on, but he persists with dogged determination, culling through the few clues the perpetrator left behind. In the book, he discovers a claim check from a cleaners in London, and he decides to follow the trail, even through it means taking a trip.
Once he gets to London, he finds yet another clue, which sends him on another chase. Eventually, he's gathered evidence from as far away as China and Australia, and he begins to believe the man he's looking for is the wandering Jew, the cobbler who told Jesus to "shove off" when he wanted help as he was carrying his cross to the crucifixion. The librarian tells us how God condemned him to wander the earth, never resting, until the Second Coming. The mythic figure is never allowed to identify himself during his travels, and our librarian begins to feel a great deal of sympathy for the legendary figure. He also begins to see the clues he's gathering as efforts by the Jew to speak and somehow be known. That story becomes a sort of metaphor for all of humanity, the librarian included.
There's nothing too grand in this discovery, but in the "box of significant scraps" that he's gathered over the course of his travels, our insignificant librarian finds a universal truth about a very human need to make our lives somehow count.
Bernhard makes for a lively curmudgeon. It's absolutely necessary that the actor playing this part be energetic, considering that the entire production really does take the shape of an hour-and-a-half-long lecture. Bernhard is astonishingly sprightly as the old man who eventually loses his position at the library because of all his traveling. And Roy Hamlin's direction brings tenderness to the story.
There's nothing here that most don't already know, but it's perhaps worthwhile to be reminded once in a while of the need each and every one of us has to stand up and be counted as we go through the world.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events