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IN J.B., THE WORLD is a circus ring. Archibald MacLeish's brilliant verse flows from the lips of two metaphysical actors who, perched high upon some ethereal stage, create their own sideshow, transforming one man's life into a carnival of anguish and despair. And all to prove a point. As they banter and rage, their tedious argument of insidious intent leads to an over-whelming question, the ultimate question.
MacLeish, one of America's greatest poets, confronts The Question of human existence, exploring the outer limits of love, pain, faith, endurance. He miraculously brings to the stage the Bible's undramatic, intellectual Book of Job. By metamorphosing the Old Testament's prosperous landowner into a New England millionaire named J.B., MacLeish makes Job's bizzare ordeal relevant to a twentieth-century audience. J.B. challenges you, compelling you to feel, to think, to ponder the same mysteries that torment MacLeish's modernday Job: why do we suffer? are we the victims of an indifferent universe and a cold, complacent God?
Director William Sakas guides J.B. down a treacherous dramatic track. His production gracefully hurdles the obstacles of existentialism, tragedy, and intellectualization, always landing safely on its feet, rarely losing pace, and never stumbling. Every component of the show, from Jonathan Lemkin's stark set design to Tom Chesterman's eerie lighting, works toward J.B.'s flawless success.
The play opens with Zuss and Nickles, actors in a preternatural traveling circus who sell balloons and peanuts between performances. Casting themselves as God and Satan, the two plan a dramatization of the Book of Job, conjuring up their own world right there in the circus tent and using an unsuspecting J.B. in the role of the lucky man who has everything he cherishes--family, money, health, happiness--destroyed as a test of his faith in God's goodness. From a high platform, the two look down on J.B. and his exuberant household and plot the tragedies that will befall him as they argue vehemently over the justification for God's cruel trial of Job. <
Zuss: He trusts God No matter how it ends, he trusts Him.
Nickles: Even when God tests him?--tortures him?
Zuss: Would God permit the test unless He knew the outcome of the testing?
Nickles: Then why test him if God knows?
Zuss: So Job can see.
Nickles: See what?
Zuss: See God.
Nickles: A fine sight from an ash heap, certainly!
As Zuss, Alice Brown's booming voice and flamboyant style capture the arrogance of her character, a person so awed by the splendor and magnificence of the Almighty that she can never doubt the rightness of His actions. Her performance perfectly complements rumpled David Reiffel's Nickles, to whom MacLeish gives the play's most cynicism at one moment and impassioned pleas for humanity at the next, never allowing his scenes with Brown to become bogged down in the author's cosmic ideas. Both performers display an impressive dramatic range as their feelings toward their "pigeon," J.B., grow more complex.
J.B. IS ONE of life's quintessential winners, a man who has always achieved his goals but has never let ambition rule him. Blessed with a devoted wife and five adoring children, he's got a ravenous love for life, sensing that his success and happiness were pre-destined. "Not for a watch-tick have I doubted/God was on my side, was good to me/Even young and poor I knew it/People called it luck: it wasn't."
J.B.'s confidence in his continued good fortune contrasts with his wife Sarah's terrible fear that they are undeserving, that their happy world is doomed. With a religious devotion bordering on fanaticism, Sarah dreads the day when God will punish her family to conpensate for all their prosperous years. Amy Gutman is superb as Sarah--her loyalty is icily cold rather than fervent. Gutman knows that a calm, reticent fanatic is far more unsettling than a fiery one. When she asks the children "Did you think of God, today?" she's not Billy Graham screaming from the pulpit, but a clear-eyed Moonie confronting you in Times Square. As Sarah's children die one by one, Gutman's horror never becomes repetitive but intensifies with every torturous shock, making her transformation to a bitter atheist wholly believable and her cry to J.B., "Curse God and die!" all the more painful.
David Moore in the title role is the crown jewel in this showcase of performances. In his first dinnertable scene, Moore displays a seemingly effortless command of MacLeish's verse. He makes the most poetic images sound as natural as daily conversations, vivifying their beauty. Even in his brief moments of arrogance and self-congratulation, Moore's J.B. is a charmer, firmly taking grasp of the audience's sympathy and holding it until the play's final moment. As his life heads recklessly down the path of disaster, he clings to his belief in God's goodness. A man of reason, he must believe that there is justice in the universe.
Moore' Christ-like face lends an ironic dimension to J.B.'s suffering. Even blind and mutilated, the victim of some apocalyptic atomic blast, Moore's J.B. unleashes a 50-megaton cry to God for justice, for a reason. He cannot accept the logic of the grinning, trembling priest--David Van Taylor shines as this Father O'Malley through Stanley Kubrick's lens. The priest offers a straight-forward answer to J.B.'s questions and MacLeish's Question: "Your sin is simple. You were born a man."
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