CSU brings a play that may cause some audience members to squirt a couple tears and others to wholeheartedly laugh out loud.
But this show may also encourage more than one audience member to do something rather unexpected.
It might motivate a few to vote.
“The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail,” presented by CSU Theatre and directed by Dr. Laura Jones, opens tonight in the University Theatre at 8 p.m.
Written by Robert Edwin Lee and Jerome Lawrence in response to the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement, the play explores issues facing America in the mid-19th century through the eyes of author, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau.
His views on environmentalism, war and government, seen through flash backs and flash-forwards, force the audience to recognize issues facing the United States today, including global warming and the war in Iraq.
“It’s very historical, but the playwrights were interested in exploring the life of Thoreau to comment on the present,” said director Laura Jones, an associate professor of theater.
Jones said the play portrays Thoreau as a young Harvard graduate and takes place over the single night he spent in jail after protesting the Mexican-American War by refusing to pay taxes.
“It’s hard to summarize because the play is not linear,” she said. “It’s very expressionistic, episodic and theatrical. It flows in and out of memory and time, but all comes together at the end.”
Lucas Sweet, a junior theater major, is cast as Thoreau. He has been acting for almost 10 years.
“The message is what really stands out,” he said. “It hits on important issues and is much timelier than other plays.”
It should appeal to college students, Jones said, because of the age of Thoreau in the play and the choices he faces.
“The play raises questions people are dealing with like ‘What will I do when I graduate?’ and choices about marriage, religion and a belief system,” she said. “The audience will have something to think about, and be able to (sympathize) with the protagonist.”
Professor Bruce Ronda, a Thoreau historian and chair of the department of English, said in an e-mail interview that the play accurately portrays one aspect of Thoreau’s life – his rebelliousness against what he considered unjust authority.
“Even though it was written in response to the particular circumstances of the 1960s and 70s, it still has meaning for us today,” he said. “It still raises uncomfortable questions about our individual responses to social discrimination, injustice, war, violence and consumerism, and our responsibility for living in accordance with the values we profess.”
Sweet, who started rehearsing with the cast nearly two months ago, believes his own personality mirrors Thoreau’s on many levels.
“There’s a lot of similarities between us,” Sweet said. “We both are outspoken and have a passion. We love people and desire to teach.”
Despite these similarities, portraying Thoreau has been far from easy, he said.
Sweet is in all of the 26 scenes in the approximately two hour long play, including a dream sequence with little dialogue, forcing the actor to delve into Thoreau’s character without the aid of words.
“It’s been a group effort,” he said. “Every scene is really about interaction. The entire cast works well together.”
The cast’s chemistry has not come by chance. Sweet and on-stage brother Quentin Schroeder, a senior theater and computer science double major, have developed a relationship off stage to make their performance more natural.
“We’ve intentionally tried to hang out to build chemistry and a relationship,” said Schroeder, who was 13 when he did his first show. “He (Sweet) is a really great guy, and now there’s no faking involved.”
The two work together in several scenes, including a play-wrestling match so realistic the audience may expect a referee to break it up.
But it’s not just the cast that makes the play work. Because the play is constantly moving through space and time, it requires a talented stage crew, set and light designers to pull off smoothly.
“The set has an organic feel, reflecting the naturalism,” said stage manager and assistant director Faith Harbert, a theater major, of the upside down abstract trees that make up the play’s background. “The gray and white back drops create a world of Thoreau that is simple and elegant.”
And simple is exactly right. The play has minimal set pieces, including a fence that doubles as a bridge and boardwalk.
The scene is instead set with a combination of lighting effects and costumes that make the play move through each scene realistically.
Jones hopes the journey of “self-awareness” that Thoreau travels throughout the show will encourage audiences to think about current events for themselves.
“My belief is that art’s purpose shouldn’t be to provide answers, but raise important questions,” she said. “A lot of times we don’t think about our actions or our inactions.”