Entertainment » Theatre

J.B.

by Christine Malcom
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Nov 13, 2017
Rainee Denham, Judy Lea Steele, Susie Griffith, and Barbara Roeder Harris
Rainee Denham, Judy Lea Steele, Susie Griffith, and Barbara Roeder Harris  (Source:chicagoreader.com)

In 1959, Archibald MacLeish's "J.B." drew not only the Pulitzer Prize for Drama but the Tony for best play. Set in free verse and based on the biblical story of Job, the play contemplates suffering, faith, love, guilt and the illusory notion of free will -- concepts that are, in theory, timeless, and in execution, too often reduced to trite, irrelevant fare. City Lit's excellent version, directed by Brian Pastor and featuring a cast comprised entirely of women over the age of 55, not only captures the mastery of the work itself, it delivers unique, ferocious commentary of its own.

Constructed as a play-within-a-play, the work opens with circus vendors making their preparations for a production of Job. Neither Zuss (Elaine Carlson), nor Nickles (Morgan McCabe) seems confident how they should play their roles of God and Satan, respectively, though it's clear this is far from their first staging.

Bickering and goading one another, they eventually don their masks and cloaks -- heavenly blue and studded with stars and moons for Zuss, movie villain black and red for Nickles. The two choose their job, and throughout the play, they swing from being completely caught up in the power they wield to literally and metaphorically emerging from behind their masks to contemplate what it is they're doing and why.

But the drama inexorably escalates. J.B.'s children are taken by war, by accident, and by banal evil; his fortunes and body are ravaged by the same forces; and ultimately, his wife leaves him as he is consumed by the need to make sense of such senselessness. Along the way, a group of street women huddle together for warmth and offer commentary and comfort, and later, J.B. is visited by three "Comforters," History, Science and Religion, none of which succeeds in offering a satisfying explanation for either his suffering or his enduring faith.

By the end of the play, thanks not only to the hypnotic rhythm of the free verse but to the sheer skill of Carlson and McCabe, play and production, mask and character, are all but stripped away. The audience is unstuck from their own experience, and up to the very moment when the undeniably pat ending comes, it genuinely seems as if the players might break from the stage and the story might take an entirely new turn.

Kaitlyn Grissom's circus-themed set provides an excellent, subtle backdrop for the show's original and unsettling take. The bold red stripes of a classic circus tent have faded almost to dusty pink. Zuss' pedestal serves not only as a prop and costume box, but it also brings to mind a trained animal and an unseen "tamer" every time the character steps on to it.

The lower, curved benches accommodate the life of J.B. and his family, for as long as it lasts, and a low, narrow stage up left is backed by a curtain that occasionally gives the audience of some hellscape beyond. What is interior and what is exterior is always in question, as is what is happening and what is dramatically re-enacted. This constantly, other-worldly state of uncertainty is also well maintained by Jess Fialko's lighting and Daniel Carlyon's sound design.

Alaina Moore's costumes further capture this sense of disorientation. Early on, during a scene set during J.B.'s family Thanksgiving feast, Moore exaggerates the gender and age of the children, at once suggesting the scene is being "played" by a ragtag troop of performers, but also lending a distinct sense of foreboding. Later, as the characters come unraveled so do the identities communicated through costuming until it seems that the entire color palette for the players is the grime and misery of the world.

David Knezz's Mask Design deserves its own mention. What Knezz produces for both Zuss and Nickles are grotesque pieces that sit well and interfere only minimally with their performances. Given how important both donning and removal of the masks are to Carlson and McCabe's performances, these pieces are visually striking and impressively functional.

Regarding performances, these 9 actors playing 23 roles interact seamlessly with one another, and their effortless handling of the free verse speaks to both their talent as an ensemble and the strength of Pastor's direction.

Carlson and McCabe truly carry the whole of the show. They find every beat of humor, drawing the audience in early, but never quite allowing it to be a release of tension as the play progresses. They sprinkle moments of awareness of the enormity of their role throughout the play so that the stripped away confrontation near the end about what it is they're doing and why is earned and all the more fascinating for it.

As J.B., Stephanie Monday provides the center for the play-within-a-play. Even as various characters break the fourth wall in conversation with one another and commentary on the events unfolding, Monday remains turned inward, which is crucial to any consideration of the age-old story of faith sorely tested that hopes to go beyond the superficial.

As J.B's wife, Sarah, Judy Lea Steele has the difficult job of occupying the miserable space at J.B.'s side and futilely striving for some role beyond collateral damage. Although she never quite joins in the more "meta" aspects of the play, she occasionally rises to the surface of awareness, and although it's doubtful any performer could overcome what is a particularly unsatisfying ending to a play when the production is so wonderfully attentive to gender and ageism, Steele comes close.

Pastor's ensemble is strikingly good, more or less without exception. Marssie Mencotti gives a particularly strong, blustering and blistering performance as Religion, as does Shariba Rivers as both Science and J.B.'s son, David.

"J.B." runs through December 10 at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryan Mawr, Chicago. For tickets or information, call 773-293-3682 or visit www.citylit.org

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.


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