Watching the opening-night performance of “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” felt a lot like going back to college.
I’d never seen this clunky drama by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee before, despite the fact that at one time it was a ubiquitous presence on college campuses. The reason? The play, although focused on Henry David Thoreau’s opposition to the 1846-47 Mexican-American War and the single night he spent behind bars, was aimed directly at the draft-age generation during America’s war in Vietnam. The play’s emphasis on civil disobedience found a responsive audience during the era of peace marches and mass protests.
The Mexican-American War doesn’t loom as a major conflict in this country’s military history, despite the fact we claimed half of Mexico’s territory in its aftermath. And Thoreau’s act of civil disobedience — refusing to pay his poll tax because he said it would support the war he opposed — seems pretty lightweight compared to the prison sentences faced by some war protestors in the 1960s and ’70s.
The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production of this show is generally well-acted and staged thoughtfully by director Karen Paisley, but it feels long and dated. In part it’s a character study of Thoreau, the Transcendentalist who famously wrote “Walden,” his account of living two years alone in the woods. We now know that his account was not totally accurate — he would often walk to his mother’s house for meals — and in the play Thoreau’s complaints about materialism and his dedicated lack of ambition is as annoying to the viewers as it is to other characters onstage.
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Jordan Fox, an actor with a powerful stage presence, plays Thoreau. He captures the character’s dreamy idealism, his love of nature and his distaste for earning money but ultimately the performance is opaque. Robert Gibby Brand, master of diction, delivers a memorable turn as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s friend and mentor. (It was, in fact, on Emerson’s land that Thoreau spent his two years is supposed solitude.)
Matt Leonard is impressive as Thoreau’s ill-fated brother, John, but perhaps the most successful performance comes from John Van Winkle, who plays Thoreau’s unlettered cellmate, a hapless rube who’s been jailed for three months without trial for allegedly burning down a barn. The character’s ignorance and naivete is inherently comic, but Van Winkle doesn’t over-sell it; he plays it straight.
Bob Paisley is appropriately repugnant as the intolerant Deacon Bell. Jessica Franz, an actress we don’t see often enough, offers an understated performance as Lydian Emerson, Waldo’s wife, who shares an unrequited mutual attraction with Henry. Frank Oakley III makes a vivid appearance as Williams, an escaped slave who receives crucial assistance from Henry. Emma Carter thoughfully renders Ellen Sewell, a student of Henry’s who is attracted to him but courted by his brother John.
Kathy Kane, perhaps because of the way the role is written, is a shrill presence as Thoreau’s mother. Small roles are filled by a competent supporting case; Andy Penn stands out as Sam Staples, Thoreau’s jailer.
The director concludes the show with a sort of moving tableaux, an attempt at “pure theater,” with music from an offstage flute and snare drum, that is surprisingly effective. The execution seems under-rehearsed but I like the idea. And as Fox makes his final exit, you’re left with a grudging admiration for Thoreau, who lived on his terms by the lights of his own philosophy.