Jan. 19 2011 12:00 AM

The lead character in ’Happy Holy Days’ examines her faith; author Rob Roznowski is way ahead of her

Sherrie, the heroine of Rob Roznowski’s “Happy Holy Days,” has plenty of questions. So does the man who created her.

“What is a tradition?” Roznowski wonders. “What is a community? Doesn’t everyone’s spiritual life evolve?”

“Days,” which is getting its first full production at Michigan State University next week, charts Sherrie’s fluctuations in faith over the course of her life, beginning with her childhood bewilderment about the conventions of Christmas: What do gifts from Santa Claus have to do with the birth of Jesus? In the years that follow, Sherrie explores larger issues relating to religion, holidays and family. Sherrie chooses a non-traditional path that parallels the set-up of Roznowski’s script.

“It’s chronological in terms of the holidays, but not in terms of years,” Roznowski, MSU’s head of acting and directing, explains. “I love that structure because I think it allows for a more impactful evening. I’ve had people say, ‘Isn’t that going to be confusing?’ And I say, ‘Hey, I saw ‘Inception’ — audiences are smarter than they given credit for.”

In Roznowski’s original vision, “Days” was far simpler. “It was a collection of non-related scenes,” he says. “At first, it was just elves going over the list of who’s naughty and who’s nice and who’s going to Hell. It was more vaudeville-like.”

The show began to take shape when, Roznowski says, he “started figuring out all the scenes I liked had this central protagonist who was questioning things.”

The Sherrie of those earlier versions is different than the fully developed character in the current show.

“She was mean, she was a bitch,” Roznowski admits. “She very firmly believed what I believed. But spiritual life is very fluid.”

When writing about Sherrie’s formative experiences, Roznowski found “I had to think back to what I was like at that age: when I was agnostic, when I started making decisions, when I believed.”

As a boy in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1970s, Roznowski said he was “a big ol’ Christian. Church choir, catechism, acolyte — all that stuff. I tried ‘em all out, actually. First Lutheran, then Methodist, then Episcopalian.”

It wasn’t religious questioning that led him to move from church to church, though. It was social connections.

“It was all very friend-oriented,” Roznowski admits. “As my friends changed, so did my faith, because my family wasn’t religious. My mom believes in God, but she didn’t go (to church).”

The turning point came when Roznowski was in his late teens. “It was the first day I ever drove to church,” he recalls. “The minister gave a lecture about helping others. I had a flat tire, and I asked him for help; he said, ‘I’m too busy.’ And I was saying, ‘But you just gave a sermon about helping!’

“That was the day I started questioning things. I’ll never forget that.”

Initially, Roznowski defined himself as agnostic, “until I was in my 30s and I was at my friend’s parents’ house. They had these atheist newsletters around, and I literally thought it was like ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ But they gave me one to take home to read, and I thought, ‘Yeah, it makes sense.’”

That wasn’t the end of the journey, though. “Then I became fundamental in my atheism and I was as intolerant as the opposition. But what that taught me was to have a kind of respect and envy for what I don’t have.”

Of course, atheists don’t have church meetings or bible study groups, “so I don’t necessarily have this defined sense of community and support,” Roznowski says.

He decided to delve into the topic of spirituality, he says, “because you write about what moves you and this, to me, is an emotional subject. Plus, if you’re going to devote a year or more to a working on a project, you’d better love it.”

Since December 2009, Roznowski has developed the comedy-drama in workshops in New York and through readings at MSU and last August’s Renegade Theatre Festival. It’s continuing to evolve, with the input of cast members Mikayla Bouchard, Piaget Ventus, Tim Smela, Megan McDowell, David Courtesy Photo Clauson and Andrew Harvey, a “Days” veteran who was in both the MSU reading last spring and the Renegade version.

“I just put in two new scenes last night,” Roznowski says, cringing slightly. “But the actors have been wonderful. It’s a great process for the students. They’ll ask, ‘Can we change this line?’ — and yes, they can, because the playwright is right here.”

When rehearsals began for the MSU production of “Days,” Roznowksi encouraged the cast to discuss their own family traditions and backgrounds as an ice-breaking exercise. He said the insights of the actors have been “absolutely helpful” as he’s been putting the final touches on the play.

“I don’t want it to be an attack or a polemic,” he says. “I want it to be an exploration.

“I don’t think it’s that controversial. (Sherrie) has this line where she says religion can’t be organized because it’s personal. And that’s what I believe.”

‘Happy Holy Days’

State University Auditorium Arena Theatre 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 25,
Wednesday, Jan. 26 and Thursday, Jan. 27; 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 28, and
Saturday, Jan. 29; 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29, and Sunday, Jan. 30 (with
director pre-show talk at 1:15 p.m.) All seats $8. (800) WHARTON or