Wednesday, February 27, 2013

When Bad Things Happen to Good J.B.: Theology as a Circus at ISU

Archibald MacLeish's J.B., a reworking of the Job story in the Bible, was all the rage back in 1959. Its inaugural Broadway production earned the Tony Award for Best Play, and the play itself took the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as a gushing piece called "The Birth of a Classic" from The Saturday Review's poetry editor John Ciardi. J.B. was "not only an intrinsically great play," wrote Ciardi, but one that set "the model from which great poetic drama may hope to flow in our times."

Pretty heady stuff for a verse drama about Job set in a lowly circus, with God represented by a balloon seller and Satan by a popcorn peddler.

So how well does J.B. survive for our times? There's certainly still plenty of suffering to go around, and plenty of people wondering what faith is for if you're just going to suffer, anyway. J.B. doesn't necessarily provide the answers, or even redemption for poor Job, but it does offer a chance to discuss how limited some of the options are.

Under the direction of Matthew Scott Campbell for Illinois State University, MacLeish's J.B. certainly looks great. Megan J. Lane's big-top set is beautiful as well as mysterious and a little scary, and Lauren M. Lowell's costumes provide an excellent match. The motley coats, steampunk personifications of History, Religion and Science, and the White Clown's entire outfit are especially impressive. Harrison Hohnholt's lighting design helps define good and evil, and the grand masks and one creepy puppet created by Brittany Powers, Mary Rose and Mark Spain also add to the atmosphere and tableau.

The set for J.B. designed by Megan J. Lane.
Actors Andrew Rogalny and Matthew Hallahan are as grand and crafty as they need to be to play God and Satan, respectively, and Tommy Malouf does both the slick-and-prosperous and miserable-wretch sides of Job quite well, while Audra Ferguson is sympathetic as Job's equally put-upon wife. Martin Hanna, Alex Kostner and Sara Shifflet make the trio of "comforters" dark and dangerous, with Hanna and David Zallis also coming up strong as various messengers of bad news.

The White Clown is director Campbell's own addition to MacLeish's circus world -- the character is more of a Charon than a Bozo -- and Christopher Bryant gives the role a definite sense of presence as well as adding meaning to the action without saying a word. His final stage picture is especially strong.

Visually, this J.B. definitely works, with enough tricks and acrobatics to keep it engaging.

But the script... MacLeish's words are not the most accessible, and Ciardi's assessment that J.B. is one from whom all verse drama thereafter flows is not really supported in performance. In the end, the squabble between Satan and God, with Job getting in a few licks at the end, too, seems peevish and overwrought more than profound. Is God good? Is good God? Is love really the answer? I dunno.

by Archibald MacLeish

The School of Theatre and Dance at Illinois State University
Westhoff Theatre

Director: Matthew Scott Campbell
Scenic Designer: Megan J. Lane
Costume Designer: Lauren M. Lowell
Lighting Designer: Harrison Hohnholt
Voice and Text Director: Connie de Veer
Prop Master: Katie McCasland
Stage Manager: Gianna Consalvo

Cast: Julia Besch, Colleen Besler, Hannah Brown, Christopher Bryant, Eddie Curley, Audra Ferguson, Matt Hallahan, Martin Hanna, Tommy Malouf, James Keating, Alex Kostner, Mary Leake, Patrick O'Gara, Joshua Pennington, Andrew Rogalny, Sara Shifflet, Chana Wilczynski. Taylor Wisham and David Zallis.

Remaining Performances: February 27-28 and March 1-2 at 7:30 pm

Running time: 2:10, including one 15-minute intermission

For ticket information, click here.


  1. Thanks. Fixed it. And added extra Hohnholt content to make up for the error.