Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail
In the midst of his two-year social experiment at Walden Pond, which began in June 1845, Thoreau was approached by Sam Staples who requested Henry pay six years of back poll taxes (or around $2). Thoreau refused as a protest against the United States involvement in the Mexican-American War which he felt was the South's attempt to create more slave states. It was a war that was being singlehandedly waged by President James Polk without the consent of Congress.
Thoreau was promptly arrested and jailed overnight until, against his wishes, his aunt paid the tax bill, procuring his release. Thus the fundamental story of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, was set. The play is now on stage at Ensemble Theatre through December 11, 2016. The undeniable wisdom found in this 105-minute play (with one ten minute intermission) dwarfs the psychobabble and rhetoric the American public has had foisted upon them for the past year leading up to the presidential election.
Following his brush with the law, Thoreau wrote his essay "Civil Disobedience," which was first published in 1849 as "Resistance to Civil Government" in the Aesthetic Papers. His proposition was not to abolish government but to improve it. To wit he said, "That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have."
While one may ask what is to be learned from a man who lived nearly 200 years ago, we only need look around us for the answer. We are a world of conspicuous consumption addicts who, for all outward appearances, care more for ourselves than for our neighbors. Following a hotly contested and brutal election in which the results still hang in the balance, the country is divided into two factions in a way that we have not seen since the 1960s and '70s. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wrote this play in 1969 and were greatly influenced by the Vietnam conflict of the time.
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail is must see theater for those trying to put a coherent thought together about an abstract situation. The wisdom is so simple and dignified it is truly a breath of fresh air in these troubled times. Even the set is simple so as not to distract, consisting of a small platform with two benches behind which stands the cell door and bars. Flanking either side are large screens that alternate with images of jail cells to those of Walden Pond, the town square in Concord, Massachusetts, a large meadow, the interior of a meeting hall, and scenes from a collection of American conflicts driving home the point that this is in essence an anti-war drama.
Over the course of the play we are made privy to Thoreau's state of mind on various subjects as well as his relationships with various people in his life including his mother, brother (John), Ralph Waldo Emerson, various students, the dean of the town school board, tax collector Sam Staples, runaway slave Williams, his cellmate Bailey, and others. Throughout the play his Yankee common sense philosophy shines through like a beacon of bright pure light. This is truly a play for our times.
This would be a good outing for the entire family. Even young children can benefit from the simple wisdom put forth.
As mentioned earlier, the set is functional without being ostentatious, leaving room for the imagination to fill in the gaps of reality. Lighting is well appointed and, due to the intimate nature of the theater coupled with the projection skills of the actors, sound is not a problem.
Geoff Knox is exceptional as Henry, as wisdom dances from his tongue. He in effect plays a natural man naturally. Terry Burgler is Ralph Waldo Emerson the benefactor, sounding board, and critic of the young writer with the sage knowledge of the ages. Joe Pine is Henry's brother John, the comic/tragic element that balances nicely with Henry's personality. Scott C. Hare is Deacon Ball and the man you love to hate as he attempts to change Thoreau's teaching methods by introducing corporal punishment in Henry's class. Sara Bogomolny as Ellen has both Thoreau brothers and the audience falling in love with her. Allen Branstein as Bailey (Thoreau's cellmate) is an eager student whose life is changed overnight. Lynna Metrisin as the put-upon Mrs. Thoreau must deal with the exceptional situations brought to her world by two brilliant sons. Other actors in the cast include Leslie Stager as Lydian, Miles Pierce as Emerson's son Edward, Davion Brown as the escaped slave Williams with Jon Hues, Callie Sour, August Scarpelli and Kyle Huff forming the ensemble.
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail is a work of truth that will have everyone leaving with a tighter grip of the current state of the country and our place in it. While at times bordering on sensationalism, it manages to rein itself in before the final bow.
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, through December 11, 2016, for Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Boulevard in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets may be purchased by calling 216-321-2930 or visiting ensemble-theatre.org.