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‘J.B.’ at The American Century Theater by Francine Schwartz

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The American Century Theater’s (TACT) entertaining and colorful production of the 1958 Pulitzer Prize-winning and 1959 Tony Award-winning Best Play J.B. by Archibald MacLeish is ‘way over the Big Top!’ What a fine way to begin TACT’s 2012-2013 season!

Julie Roundtree and John Tweel. Photo by Dennis Deloria.

More than fifty years-old, this meaningful play is still relevant. Today, we have different wars, different natural disasters, and different economic challenges – but we are still unsatisfied, and torn among what MacLeish called ‘comforters’ – potential meanings put forth by religion, history, and science. Director Rip Claassen, a former seminarian, points out in his program notes that proponents of each point of view often seem to listen only to themselves, and must be understood in harmony rather than as rivals.

Scenic Designer Trena Weiss-Null has created a circus set-piece with multiple clowns in Lorraine Slattery’s spectacular colorful costumes and the makeup is eye-popping. The clowns and other circus performers are excellent, and their antic movements are fun to watch. Ed Moser’s sound design and Zachary Dalton’s beautiful lighting puts you in the middle of the circus.

And there’s more – a supple young girl walks around politely asking members of the audience if they want a kiss, and a young acrobat performs tricks on some long silky panels suspended from the ceiling. They also try to ‘butter up’ the audience by offering some free popcorn. By utilizing a variety of clowns as a sort of Greek chorus, MacLeish unsettles those of us who think we already know the story, and allows us to have a little ironic distance.

It’s safe to say that most audience members have already heard of the story of Job. J.B. (an assertive yet frustrated John Tweel) – a frustrated banker – is a somewhat humanized version of the biblical character. God’s faithful servant, he is principled, devout and grateful. He’s a lucky man, wealthy – a pillar of the community –  with a large family and a successful business and a devoted wife Sarah (the doubting but bubbly Julie Roundtree).

Allison Turkel and Kecia Campbell. Photo by Dennis Deloria.

As the play progresses we learn that J.B. is not automatically entitled to his good fortune just because he or she is a doer of good deeds. Despite faith, despite good works, and despite his continuing entreaties for an explanation for his losses, J.B. is denied explanation and repeatedly devastated. Nevertheless, he never blames God, or in this case – Mr. Zuss (a divine Steve Lebens). This frustrates the hell out of Nickles – (a devilish Bruce Alan Rauscher). Nickles and Mr. Zuss are expecially critical roles and could have easily be skewed in the direction of villanry and malice. Instead, Director Claassen shows them as fallible and entities capable of empathy, if not compassion.

Tweel and Lebens play off each other well, and even seem sympathetic to each other’s point of view. Julie Roundtree is great as the warm helpmate who shares J.B.’s fate but lacks his profound trust that the series of tragedies that unfold should be construed as a test of faith. There is great chemistry among the four leads and they work off each other quite well – like Laurel and Hardy and Burns and Allen.

The ensemble of J.B.is also outstanding! Kudos to Loren Bray (who had a humorous bit soliciting money from the audience to pay for clown school), and to the other cast members: 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 Turkeyl, and Zak Gordon for their energetic performances. Special kudos to History (Bildad), played by Robert Heinly, Religion (Zophar), played by George Tamerlani, and Science (Eliphaz), played by Evan Crump.

Also adding to the enjoyment of the production is that the audience is not far from the stage, and this provides an intimacy with the players which is unusual and quite effective. Right in front of us John Tweel (J.B) effectively transitions from the comfortable, affluent family man to the grief-stricken father – and eventually to the prone and beggared man whose challenge is to find meaning in his unexpected plight.

Steve Lebens and Bruce Alan Rauscher. Photo by Dennis Deloria

In the world of J.B., God is not obliged to be fair or transparent when he interferes in human affairs. That’s not the contract. Since this is still controversial within religious circles the play is thought provoking, without an easy resolution. We, like J.B., are also waiting throughout the play to find an explanation that allows us to maintain our belief in a just world.

TACT Artistic Director Jack Marshall has written and compiled an extensive audience guide regarding MacLeish’s career and the evolution of his ideas. It’s a very interesting and thorough guide, and it will enhance your enjoyment of this unique theatrical experience. So come a little early to read it.

The American Century Theater’s J.B. is a theatrical event you won’t soon forget. Don’t clown around too long and buy your tickets now!

J.B. plays at The American Century Theater at Gunston Theatre II – in Theatre II in the Gunston Arts Center – 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office (703) 998-4555, or purchase them online.

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