Katharina Von Bora was a Cistercian nun who fled the convent and ended up married to Martin Luther. She bore him six children and adeptly managed their estate while he took on the business of revolutionizing Christian theology,  and with it the whole of Europe.

The dramatization of Katharina’s spiritual journey, real or imagined, should be a fascinating one. Its staging in downtown L.A.’s St. John’s Cathedral, a spectacular edifice modeled on the Romanesque cathedrals of the 11th and 12th century, compounds those expectations. As architecture, the cathedral is art, worth a look-see even if you aren’t a believer or going there to attend Tom Jacobson’s Diet of Worms.

But the play — titled after the ecclesiastical body that condemned Luther for heresy in 1523 — can in no way compete with its setting. The playwright gets points for his feminist themes and concerns with justice, but the piece has considerable shortcomings, which are underscored by Jennifer Chang’s imprecise direction as well as performances that lack the necessary gravitas.

Rebecca Kaasa and Keiana Richard; Credit: Photo by Halei Parker

Rebecca Kaasa and Keiana Richard; Credit: Photo by Halei Parker

At the outset, Katharina (Keiana Richard) is a lively 20-something nun well-adjusted to the ways of her order. She and her sister nuns are shepherded in their faith by the abbess (Inger Tudor), who looks after them as “a mother hen looks after her chicks.” The abbess is an authority figure, but she’s also kind and just, and has taken under her wing wayward young postulant Eva (Rebecca Kaasa), who challenges the rules of the convent.

The abbess has other worries — she’s under pressure for money to keep the convent going. When Katharina learns this, she proposes to raise funds by reading the Bible to illiterate nuns in other convents. Soon this idea metamorphoses into staging Apocryphal plays, an idea the abbess agrees to and eventually participates in.

From that point on, a significant amount of the action takes place in and around the rehearsal process. Jacobson transposes the sort of neurotic, competitive behavior attributed to theater people and commonly satirized in contemporary comedy to these 16th-century recluses, with Katharina salving other people’s egos with flattery while employing terms such as “opening night jitters.” One of the sisters, Lanita (Lorene Chesley), is combative and foul-mouthed, while the resident scholar and playwright Fronika (Elizabeth Ho) is improbably knowledgeable about iambic couplets and apologizes that her script is a “first draft.”

The prolific Jacobson (33 plays to his credit) here has established several strong dramatic conflicts (Eva and the abbess — and even Lanita — have compelling secrets), then trivialized them with improbable language and trite scenarios. It’s wonderful when a playwright ferries us into another world, there to reveal the common humanity shared by our own culture and one vastly different. That may be what Jacobson attempted to do with this piece, but it doesn’t work.

With the exception of Tudor, whose depiction of the abbess is strong and skilled, the performances on opening night struck me as seriously under-rehearsed. Lighting is also something of a problem, and in certain scenes the performers appears lost on this church's grand sprawling pulpit.

Chalk Repertory Theatre, St. John’s Cathedral, 514 W. Adams Blvd., downtown; through June 27. www.chalkrep.com.

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