The American Century Theater’s new production of Archibald MacLeish’s nearly forgotten verse play J.B. is well worth encountering, particularly if you’re looking for an intellectual challenge. ACT’s take on this unusual play re-creates its meticulously crafted, highly emotional yet surprisingly probing look back to a post-war era when Americans had begun to seriously question the American way of life, often searching for answers in the deeply complex novels, poetry and drama that materialized in the years following the Second World War.
Earlier versions of J.B. relied heavily on the metaphor of the circus, while MacLeish’s final version was more abstract, leaving most aspects of the setting to the director while focusing on the play’s intellectual content. The play itself re-casts the Job as a successful modern American businessman who, similar to the original biblical figure, gradually loses his banking business, his house, and all his children to various catastrophes including war and pestilence.
Assaulted by physical illness and the apparent desertion of his wife, the stricken J.B.—who once regarded his wealth and happiness as a gift from God for his own hard work and piety—is left alone to question his faith in God, in Whose goodness he unwaveringly continues to believe.
All this is actually pretty solemn stuff. We don’t often encounter plays today that focus directly on the meaning and relevance of religious and moral concepts. Perhaps that’s what’s led people to shy away from producing this intriguing play in recent decades.
Fortuitously, the director of this production, Rip Claasen, strongly reintroduces the circus metaphor from MacLeish’s earlier versions of J.B. to brighten ACT’s current production while adding some refreshing comic relief, particularly in the early going.
Claasen’s highly original idea was to encourage audiences to show up early at the theater where they’d be entertained by a seemingly random batch of circus clowns, who end up morphing into the supporting cast of J.B.
According to Claasen, this introductory clowning around proved popular enough with audiences attending the play’s first outings that he added a roughly 15-minute segment of circus-style entertainment that begins at curtain and then fades into the opening lines of the play itself.
As this introductory clowning around reaches its conclusion, religious elements intrude into the hi-jinks, providing a nice transition into MacLeish’s dramatic material. As the clowns shuffle offstage, a pair of ringmasters, Messrs. Nickles (Bruce Alan Rauscher) and Zuss or “Zeus” (Steve Lebens) enter the circus area, wax philosophical and theological.
Agreeing to disagree, they decide to assume the roles of God and Satan and perform a real world test, exploring the limits of man’s faith by sorely testing the constancy of—in this case—J.B., an extraordinarily just and upright man. The question: will J.B. crack under the strain and abandon his faith in God?
MacLeish’s drama itself, which occurs in the circus ring in this production, thus becomes a play within a play. Action is focused on the center while running commentary is provided by “God” and “Satan” who are responsible for the circus of souls that unfolds before them.
J.B. himself soon appears along with his large family, all of whom have a swell time with Thanksgiving dinner, happily thanking God for all their blessings. At which point the boom is lowered, and you know the rest.
It’s obvious that J.B. isn’t the type of play an audience normally encounters these days. In some ways, it’s more akin to medieval “miracle plays” that were often performed in churches using players who represented everyday people as well as angels and saints to illustrate moral and religious church teachings. The characters in such plays weren’t realistic so much as they were types who represented certain moral and secular values.
MacLeish updates the Book of Job as well as the miracle play tradition by adding real humanity and realism to his earthly characters, reserving the loftier, more philosophical material to Zuss and Nickles in their roles of God and Satan. Nonetheless, given dramatic antecedents and the playwright’s efforts to humanize his characters, theatergoers used to contemporary realism will likely find J.B.’s characters a bit two-dimensional at times. Ultimately, this is a play of ideas, not people.
In keeping with its relative solemnity, the play, as indicated earlier, is written in a combination of metrical, free, and occasionally rhyming verse, something rarely attempted after WWII and something that occasionally comes across as stiff or stilted to a modern audience.
That said, J.B.’s large cast does extraordinarily well in bringing out the humanity of the play’s characters. As J.B. himself, John Tweel is outstanding as a God-fearing Everyman tormented beyond measure by a world that can only encourage endless self-doubt and loathing. Alternately kind and forceful, magisterial and desperate, Tweel’s J.B. is the average guy who, after a just and upright life, finds himself at the bottom of the heap anyway, leading him to question the relative worth of leading a virtuous life.
As Zuss and Nickles, Steve Lebens and Bruce Alan Rauscher bear the considerable brunt of MacLeish’s philosophical speculations. Their lines, of necessity, can seem somewhat wooden. But both manage to imbue them with as much humanity as possible even as they explore the philosophical import of the play.
Also quite effective in Act II were J.B.’s “three comforters,” Bildad (Robert Heinly), Eliphas (George Tamerlani), and Zophar (Evan Crump). Representing history, science, and religion each “comforter,” like their predecessors in the Book of Job, are caricatures of virtue, offering little hope and sowing the seeds of doubt in an already beleaguered soul. Heinly, Tamerlani, and Crump each portray the comforters as sleazy, bitter dead-enders who’ve already lost hope in their own lives and—perhaps similar to the function of Satan in the three temptations of Christ—wish less to comfort J.B. than they desire to bring him down to their own level of despair and lack of faith.
Closes October 6, 2012
American Century Theater
Gunston Arts Center
2700 S. Lang Street
Arlington, VA 22206
2 hours with 1 intermission
MacLeish clearly found great inspiration in the Book of Job. An old-style liberal and New Dealer, he quietly soured on religion, politics, and government as he grew older, strongly influenced by the Great Depression, World War II, Washington infighting, and, in the 1950s, the McCarthy hearings. These seem to have transformed him into a skeptic. And J.B. was in many ways the fruit of that skepticism, allowing both MacLeish and his audiences to use his update of an old Bible story to question their own religion, beliefs, and value systems.
That’s almost certainly why ACT chose to take a chance with this play right here in the Washington of 2012. With our economy in perpetual stasis; with the Middle East imploding at least in part due to battling religions; and with the current fall election campaigns degenerating into name-calling and vilification even as they ignore the real problems of everyday people, the cosmic religious and secular issues addressed by J.B. are suddenly relevant again.
J.B. is a think piece whose characters represent serious ideas. Its approach is existential in many ways, and it’s at times almost absurdist in the manner of Ionesco and Beckett. Yet the deeply committed director and actors in ACT’s current production help transform a vehicle that could come across as preachy and didactic into a contemporary “miracle play” that’s touched by recognizable humanity. ACT’s JB grabs us and holds our own belief systems hostage, leaving us at the final curtain to debate why 21st century life is the way it is and to decide what we, ourselves, are going to do about it.
J.B. by Archibald MacLeish, directed by Rip Claasen, Featuring John Tweel as J.B. (Job), Bruce Alan Rauscher as Nickles (The Devil), and Steve Lebens as Mr. Zuss (God) and Julie Roundtree as J.B.’s wife, Sarah. With Loren Bray, Jennifer Brown, Kathryn Browning, Kecia Campbell, Evan Crump, Joshua Dick, Caroline Frias, Kaiya Gordon, Robert Heinly, Sam Landa, Chanukah Jane Lilburne, Joshua Rosenblum, Jakob Sudberry, George Tamerlani, Allison Turkel, and Zak Gordon.
Scenic Design: Trena Weiss-Null, Properties Design: Michelle Hitchcock. Lighting Design: Zachary Dalton, Costume Design: Lorraine Slattery, Sound Design: Ed Moser. Stage Manager, Katie Dooley, Johanna Schoenborn is the Assistant Stage Manager. Produced by American Century Theater. Reviewed by Terry Ponick
More about the playwright:
Playwright Archibald MacLeish was—and is—far less known as a dramatist than he was as a U.S. poet of international repute. He was, in his day, one of those interesting, cosmopolitan intellectuals that America no longer seems to produce. Born in 1892, he attended Yale and Harvard Universities, collecting a degree in English at the former and a law degree at the latter. After serving in the Great War, he returned to the U.S. where he first pursued his literary side, becoming an editor at the New Republic. But after completing his law studies, he joined a prestigious Boston law firm.
Abruptly, however, he abandoned his promising legal career to join the F. Scott Fitzgerald crowd in Paris where he soon won plaudits for his poetry. Returning to the U.S., MacLeish continued to pen well received poetry, which was distinguished for its intellectual content as well as for its willingness to continue, for the most part, traditional meter and rhyme even as it explored the challenges of free verse.
MacLeish’s career took a surprising political turn when President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him Librarian of Congress during his second term. With zero experience as a librarian himself, MacLeish nonetheless proved his mettle, modernizing that institution and founding the position of Poet Laureate—still a notable part of the Library’s program today.
After the Second World War, MacLeish returned to academia where he taught and continued to write poetry, exploring its use in drama—a blending of the arts that went into a long, inexorable decline after achieving its high point in Shakespeare’s era.
During the 1950s, MacLeish began to create J.B.—initially a one-act modern update of the well-known biblical tale of long-suffering but God-fearing Job. After working and re-working his material into a traditional full-length play, J.B. was published in 1958 and scored a Broadway production that became a surprise hit, copping Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Direction in 1959.
J.B. by Archibald MacLeish
Director: Rip Claasen
Costuming: Lorraine Slattery
Light design: Zachary A. Dalton
Sound design: Ed Moser
Set design: Trena Weiss-Null