This verse drama by poet Archibald MacLeish received both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1959, but is little known today. Perhaps that's because of changing theatrical tastes (hardly anyone writes plays in verse anymore), because it requires a large and dramatically flexible cast, or because it takes on major moral and ethical concerns as a retelling of the biblical Book of Job. In any case, American Century and director Rip Claassen have worked hard to present J.B. as an affecting experience that involves both the mind and heart.
American Century uses its black-box space at Arlington's Gunston Theatre II as a theatrical blank slate, most recently turning it into a Depression-era ballroom for Marathon '33 and a parochial school classroom for Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. Scenic designer Trena Weiss-Null has created another interactive playing space: a circus ring where acrobats hang from suspended pieces of fabric, clowns hand out balloon sculptures, and company members recite simple moral tales for the entertainment of the crowd. It's all very bright and busy until the play itself begins. Then the focus turns to a balloon salesman (Steve Lebens) and a popcorn vendor (Bruce Alan Rauscher) who take on the respective characters of God and Satan to recount the ancient story of Job in modern terms.
J.B. (John Tweel) is a successful and rich businessman with a loving wife, Sarah (Julie Roundtree), and five healthy and happy children. He is a righteous, moral man who takes no credit for his own successes: God is behind all of them. From a perch above the circus ring, Satan proposes a bet: if J.B. loses all his blessings, will he continue to love God or will he renounce the supreme being?
To emphasize the 20th-century perspective, MacLeish turns the three comforters (Robert Heinly, George Tamerlani, Evan Crump) who attempt to ease J.B.'s sufferings into personifications of contemporary philosophies. One stresses the forward thrust of history and denies the importance of any one person; another sees a scientific universe where the idea of guilt is irrelevant; and the third is a priest who emphasizes that the need for absolution outweighs the knowledge of what sin has been committed. Above all, none of them listens to the others.
The three lead actors succeed in carrying this massive play on their shoulders: Lebens, both humble and determined; Rauscher, sleekly cynical; and Tweel, ground down but never completely. Assisting them is Roundtree, whose steely yet gentle performance grounds this story of eternal truths in human experience.
American Century Theater