Production more than just night of Thoreau
November 16, 2009 —
Adapting real-life personalities to an artistic medium is a tricky business. Stick too closely to the individual’s life and words, and the sense of drama and message may be lost; but adapt too loosely, and run the risk of appearing to use another person as a mouthpiece for one’s own views.
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail carefully walks the line between fact and fiction, between biography and political propaganda for most of its length. The playwrights, Robert Lee and Jerome Lawrence, have a clear anti-war agenda; but by choosing Henry David Thoreau, the author of Civil Disobedience, as their subject, they found a man who perfectly embodied their message.
Daniel Foley stars as Thoreau, the exuberant icon of Americana most famous for his diary of two years spent living in a cabin in the woods, Walden. Foley’s Thoreau is an optimistic and idealistic youth at odds with society and its conventions.
The play begins with Thoreau’s friend and sometime mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his wife Lydia reminiscing about Henry and his “peculiar” ways.
It then leaps around to his time as a schoolteacher, his days working for Emerson, his tenure at Walden, his assistance to a runaway slave, and other events, always returning back to the prison cell where he spends most of the play.
The disjunctive structure makes the story more interesting and coherent, allowing events to be presented through thematic links rather than strict chronology. It also allows a wider range of Thoreau’s life to be portrayed than the title implies.
The historical Thoreau did in fact spend a night in jail when he was 29 for failing to pay his taxes. Thoreau, who was released (against his wishes) when his aunt paid his debt for him, insisted that his actions were a moral imperative.
Thoreau argued that since taxes funded the Mexican-American War, and that he believed the war was unjust, he was obliged to refuse payment, even if he was only “one honest man.” His experience in jail led him to draft his landmark treatise on the individual and the state, Resistance to Civil Government.
This theme — of the individual conscience’s need to resist conformity and oppression — is the running thread of Thoreau’s writings, and of Lee and Lawrence’s play.
For the most part, the message is deftly integrated into the text, revealed through Thoreau’s battles with the domineering Deacon Ball (David Milka), his mother (Erinn Holm) and occasionally Emerson himself (Caleb Knutson).
At the end of the play, however, the message is hammered home too forcefully through Thoreau’s nightmare vision of a battlefield.
Though the staging — with smoke machines, red fog lights, and actors stalking the stage with pointed rifles — is spectacular, actors barking “Learn to kill!” repeatedly, to a backdrop of Vietnam War photographs, makes the message too obvious.
Still, the play is thoroughly enjoyable for its insight into Thoreau’s life — somehow, I had never imagined him as a young man before — and for its performances. Foley’s Thoreau has the wide-eyed optimism and endless drive of early Jake Gyllenhall characters like Homer Hickam in October Sky. And Knutson’s Emerson is a particular treat, capturing the showy tics, the humphs and harrumphs of the “Sage of Concord,” who seems to never be able to turn his podiumvoice off.
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail is showing at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. on Sunday.