Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Sinclair Lewis wrote the novel in 1935 during the rise of fascism in Europe. The demagogue Huey Long from Louisiana was preparing to run for president in the 1936 election when he was assassinated in 1935 just prior to the novel's publication. Lewis and John C. Moffitt wrote the stage version and retained the name of the book. It was sponsored by the new Federal Theatre Project, part of the Works Project Administration which, known as the WPA.
The stage production opened at the Adelphi Theatre in New York on October 26, 1936, where it ran for 95 performances. It also opened on the same day in various cities across America with local casts (including here at the Columbia Theatre, the current A.C.T. Geary Theatre). There was a black version and even a Jewish version of the play and it was seen by a half million people all over the country. A film version was underway at MGM, but studio head Louis B. Mayer canceled the production on the warning of Will H. Hayes of the Motion Picture Production Code that he would have problems in the German market.
Tony Taccone and Bennett Cohen have newly adapted the play but it is still set in the 1930s. It centers on the small town of Fort Beulah, Vermont, where scholarly, liberal hometown newspaper editor Doremus Jessup (Tom Nelis) lives. He is disturbed by the rise of the plain-speaking and not competent presidential candidate named Buzz Windrip (David Kelly). When Windrip is speedily elected, Jessup sees that Windrip's campaign volunteers have now become foot soldiers much like the Gestapo in Germany. There are now labor camps and all-out concentration camps nationwide for second class citizens such as blacks, Jews and gays. Books are burned, democratic ideals erode, and America falls into fascism.
It Can't Happen Here has a brilliant first act which is energetically staged by director Lisa Peterson with a cast of 18 actors. Peterson's direction is inspired on the spare set designed by Rachel Hauck. The scenes change rapidly, with the cast breaking the fourth wall to engage the audience to cheer, boo and applaud when Buzz appears at a meeting in the town hall.
The second act I had problems with. Maybe, having lived through World War II, I had seen too many anti-Nazi films. There are scenes here like those from the films that I remember. The concentration camp scenes, the shootings, the interrogation scene, and the scene of the Jessup family fleeing to Canada are not exciting and go on too long. The scene of the book burning is awesome on the stage, with smoke and red lights for the fires in three "pits."
David Kelly is outstanding as Buzz Windrip, perfect as the demagogue, while Tom Nelis underplays the role of Jessup. Sharon Lockwood is excellent in multiple roles while Scott Coopwood makes a good villain. Charles Shaw Robinson gives an impressive performance as a cold-blooded military magistrate. Will Rogers gives a notable performance as Phillip Jessup, son of the editor who turns fascist. Carolina Sanchez is plucky as the impetuous daughter Sissy, while Anna Ishida gives a splendid performance as the serious-minded daughter Mary. Gabriel Montoya, Deidrie Henry, Alexander Lydon, William Thomas Hodgson, Geraldo Rodriguez, and Mark Kenneth Smaltz all give satisfying performances in various roles.
Peterson skillfully directs the production, which is almost experimental in the first act and settles down into set scenes in the second act. She moves the characters from a political rally to a fireside chat within seconds in the first act.
It Can't Happen Here runs through November 6th, 2016, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. The next production will be Jeff Augustin's The Last Tiger In Haiti, a world premiere co-production with La Jolla Playhouse, running October 14 through November 27.