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November 14, 2003

UT play recounts Thoreau's brush with the fuzz

Henry David Thoreau is probably most widely known as the transcendentalist who wrote Walden. The Thoreau portrayed in Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail has yet to write Walden, but his philosophy is already fairly well developed.

Thrown in the Concord jail for refusing to pay his taxes, the Thoreau we are presented with (played by first-year Mark Conkel) is such a forward-thinking liberal that he would likely fit in well with today's self-styled "progressives." He is pro-environment, anti-capitalism, anti-war, and he is perpetually passionate. Virtually everyone he encounters is subject to his exhortations, including Ralph Waldo Emerson (played by third-year James Kowalski).

Some respite from Thoreau's preachy speech is provided when he engages with his brother John (third-year Alex Rocha) and mother (second-year Fleming Ford). In these scenes, he is much more accessible as a character—a brother in both flesh and thought to John and a bundle of worry to his mother. Rocha does well as Thoreau's brother and impressively double-times as Thoreau's nemesis, Deacon Ball. And Ford deserves attention for her role as Mother—what could be a minor speaking part she imbues with import, ably communicating with her face and body even while silent.

Conkle as Thoreau is amazingly successful at maintaining the energy that the seemingly ever-stirred-up character demands. Unfortunately, the script by Lawrence and Lee (better known for Inherit the Wind and Auntie Mame) gives even the most willing actor little to work with in developing a multifaceted and engaging Thoreau. The direction by second-year Ben Fink steps up to the challenge, and Fink manages his cast well, especially given that a number of them play multiple roles.

The double roles are interesting in the parallels between characters, which are coupled. Rocha doubles as Thoreau's brother and enemy, as mentioned above, while first-year Jenna Beletic is both Lydian Emerson (Ralph Waldo's wife) and Ellen, a Concord girl. Both women are love interests for Thoreau, or at least contribute to some sexual tension, but the author, famously chaste, is better suited for hunting huckleberries and examining blades of grass (seriously) than for any substantive romance. Beletic, who bears a striking resemblance to Dawson's Creek star Meredith Monroe, is convincing as Ellen and skillfully distinguishes her from Lydian, though both are women whose lives are, at base, restricted by men (be it father or famous husband).

Also playing two roles is first-year Yotam Schachter, as Edward Emerson, the philosopher's young son, and Bailey, who shares a cell with Thoreau the night he spends in jail. Both Edward and Bailey, though widely separated by age and class, reap the benefit of Thoreau's company as he schools them both on living life freely and not being trapped by "book-learning."

Thoreau's philosophy is supposed to seem like that of an earthy everyman, in contrast to Emerson, a professional academic whose ideas are ostensibly out of touch with the realities of regular life. But this view of Thoreau as a Harvard-educated regular Joe who supports and denounces all the right things feels false, especially when he actually interacts with one of his "causes." Williams, an escaped slave, comes upon Thoreau hoeing beans at Walden. Portrayed powerfully by first-year John Frame, the dialogue between Williams and the farmer-philosopher nonetheless comes off as almost crass in the unrealistic dynamic it creates.

Really, any fault that can be found with Thoreau should be heaped on the authors. The set design is appealing and well-suited to the changes in location that the script demands (though perhaps less well-suited to those with hay allergies). The lighting is generally helpful, though the semi-illumination of the jail cell makes it somewhat hard to make out the action that takes place there. And the sound design, replete with tweeting birds, amused at least this reviewer.

Most pleasing about Fink's staging is the strength of the supporting actors. From Ford to Williams to first-year Ian Romain as policeman Sam Staples, all contribute greatly to the scenes they are in and help counteract the tedium that Thoreau's frequent call to revolution could induce.