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SAN DIEGO
Regional Reviews by Bill Eadie

Kingdom City
La Jolla Playhouse


Ian Littleworth and Austyn Myers
Arthur Miller's The Crucible proudly wore its politics on its sleeve, and its doing so contributed to its regard as an American classic. Sheri Wilner's play, about a high school staging of The Crucible in a conservative Missouri town, tries to be fair to all sides of the conversation—and in doing so diminishes its coherence.

Kingdom City is the name of that Missouri town, where Daniel (Todd Weeks) and Miriam (Kate Blumberg) have relocated from New York. Daniel has received an "artist-in-residence" fellowship from a local college, a grant that includes minimal teaching and maximal time for writing. Daniel hopes to use the writing time to complete a novel, on which he has been working for more than seven years. Miriam is along for a break from the pressures of being a theatre director in New York, but she does miss her theater work, so when an opportunity arises to direct the local high school's play, she consents, albeit reluctantly.

There's trouble from the beginning: Miriam's list of plays she'd like to direct are all rejected by the school principal, who, instead, provides her with a list of plays most-produced by high schools and tells her to pick from the list. And then there's the drama club, whose members will form the core of the cast. Crystal (Katie Sapper), the president, is driven to become a professional actress, and she announces on first meeting that she intends to go to Julliard and will want a recommendation letter from Miriam. Crystal's acolyte, Katie (Cristina Gerla), the secretary-treasurer, has, perhaps, more talent than Crystal, but she lets it show only in fits and starts. Matt (Austyn Myers) is the club vice president. Officially, he's "courting" Katie, because the two of them are taking "purity" classes from the youth pastor of the church they attend.

Meanwhile, Daniel, searching for inspiration for his writing, meets up with Luke (Ian Littleworth), a local craftsman who is building a stone wall by stacking rocks on each other without using mortar. Luke also turns out to be the youth pastor who is teaching the purity class. Daniel sees parallels between Luke's craft and his, and he starts spending time helping Luke with the wall.

Miriam picks The Crucible to direct and casts Crystal as Abigail Williams, the young woman who is accused of witchcraft and who diverts attention from herself by accusing others, setting off mass hysteria about the presence of Satan in Puritan-dominated Salem, Massachusetts. She casts Matt and Katie as John and Elizabeth Proctor, the local couple who see through Abigail's machinations.

The backstage drama is not settled for long, though. Katie and Matt realize that the script calls for them to kiss passionately on stage, and they also realize that doing so might violate the precepts of the purity class they are taking. They approach Luke with the dilemma, and he concludes that not only does The Crucible violate those precepts but that it does not meet community standards and should not be staged by the high school.

It is clear that Kingdom City has a lot on its mind, and that's not always a good thing. For one thing, it's sometimes hard to like Miriam and Daniel. He whines a lot and she is stern; it isn't clear why they're a couple (even though they're being played by a real-life couple). Daniel blossoms when he's with Luke, though, and Luke gets to show off how smart and non-doctrinaire he can be. And there's a chance that Daniel might be able to learn enough about himself to help him get through the blocks he has going on. Still, Luke's job is to evangelize, and he always appears as though he's searching for how to spring the trap.

Crystal, too, is unlikeable. She's a narcissist and a bully, and she takes her role as Abigail Williams far too seriously. Katie and Matt are the objects both of Crystal's narcissism and her bullying, not without cause, as it turns out. Katie and Matt are the characters the audience should root for, but there isn't much about them to cheer. Katie would love to play Joan of Arc, and maybe she's got the inner strength to do it. Matt would love to play Jesus, but he knows that he will have to struggle with his own demons to do so. On the other hand, if Katie plays Elizabeth Proctor like Joan of Arc and Matt plays John Proctor like Jesus, things might work out fine.

Then, part-way through, it becomes clear that Ms. Wilner intends for Daniel and Miriam to be playing the Proctors as well. But to do so, Miriam will have to keep her strength but temper her sour manner while Daniel will have to stand up to Luke.

And Luke—who is he in The Crucible? Well, he could be Rev. John Hale, the nearby minister who's intellectual but also committed to smashing demon witchcraft. Of, he could be the demon himself—but, given that Ms. Wilner wants to give all points of view their due, it seems unlikely that she'd make Luke do the devil's work while disguised as a charismatic clergyman, because then she'd be taking sides.

It's just possible that sides should be taken. After all, banning play productions in Missouri is not new news and not only in high school. At Southeast Missouri State University in 2008, ticket purchasers were offered refunds if they were offended by the university's production of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, and the university committed to reviewing its policies for selecting plays after the donor for whom the theatre was named complained publicly about the play's treatment of Catholicism. In an incident that made national news, in 1989 a furor erupted in Springfield, Missouri, when Southwestern Missouri State staged The Normal Heart. The play went on, but an arsonist torched the home of one of the production's most vocal supporters.

La Jolla Playhouse has given this world premiere a handsome production, focusing on turning the audience into congregational witnesses by putting the seating on both sides of the stage area (credit Robert Brill's scenic design, Paul Whitaker's lighting design, and Nicholas Drashner's sound design). David Israel Reynoso's costumes become all the more prominent when they elicit comments from the characters ("In New York, if you wore that shirt it'd be ironic; here, it's just plaid").

Several of director Jackson Gay's actors have big emotional shifts to handle, but those shifts are not always well foreshadowed in the performances. There's too much one-note playing, particularly by Ms. Sapper, Ms. Blumberg, and the usually resourceful Mr. Myers. The best acting comes from the "courtship" between Luke and Daniel, and sparks fly whenever Mr. Littleworth and Mr. Weeks are on stage together.

Kingdom City could be improved by reducing the number of issues being considered simultaneously and by providing the actors with more direct means of building their characters so that they can portray the story in a way that makes emotional sense.

La Jolla Playhouse presents the world premiere of Kingdom City through October 5; Tuesday/Wednesday at 7:30pm; Thursday/Friday/Saturday at 8pm; Sun at 7pm; Sat/Sun at 2pm. Tickets start at $15 and may be purchased by calling (858) 550-1010 or by visiting www.lajollaplayhouse.org.

By Sheri Wilner. Directed by Jackson Gay. Scenic Design: Robert Brill; Costume Design: David Reynoso; Lighting: Paul Whitaker; Sound Design: Nick Drashner; Dramaturg: Gabriel Greene.

Cast:
Miriam: Kate Blumberg
Daniel: Todd Weeks
Katie: Cristina Gerla
Luke: Ian Littleworth
Matt: Austyn Myers
Crystal: Katie Sapper


Photo: Jim Carmody

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie



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