At last, an opportunity in Boise to attend an award-winning play that makes you laugh, cry and actually "scrape the moss" off your mind and think. The play is The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, and it runs for two more weekends at Spontaneous Productions.
Director Robert McDiarmid has created a brilliant interpretation of the script by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee, co-authors of Inherit the Wind and Auntie Mame. McDiarmid's innovative set design, built by Tom Poremba, achieves two principle goals: It provides a jail cell so close to the audience, we feel we are sharing Thoreau's incarceration; and it shows how free Thoreau's mind is, even when locked up, as he wanders through the present and the past at his beloved Walden Pond.
The play, written in 1971, has a timeless quality beyond its 1840's setting during the Mexican-American War. Justin Marshall Tharpe gives a riveting performance as Henry David Thoreau, the Harvard graduate whose respect for justice and love of nature guided his short life. Outraged by America's war of expansion against Mexico, Thoreau refuses to pay his taxes to finance this unjust conflict, and willingly goes to jail in protest.
Tharpe captures the eloquent, stubborn and explosive spirit of the famous transcendental naturalist. Tharpe's earnest honesty and charm are completely captivating and he has a startling ability to bring Thoreau's words and thoughts to vibrant life.
The perfect foil for Thoreau's brilliance is his cellmate, the illiterate and rumpled vagrant Bailey, played with enchanting childlike candor by Todd Wells. Tom Poremba is outstanding as the famous, somewhat pompous, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau's mentor and idol at college. Poremba perfectly conveys Emerson's respect and affection for Thoreau, but at the same time he is too busy and important, overwhelmed by his own successes, to fight for the causes Thoreau feels are crucial. Their famous exchange ends the first act as Emerson, rushing to Thoreau's aid, exclaims, "Henry, what are you doing in jail?" and Thoreau replies, "Waldo, what are you doing out of jail?"
T.J. Johnson is sympathetic and believable as John Thoreau, Henry's brother. He shows his affectionate rapport with his brother, even while calling him a "gifted weirdo." Lora Volkert plays Henry's mother with a tart, critical air. Volkert's reserved New England persona needs a little more projection to really reach the audience.
Kelly Neel wins the audience's sympathy with her shy but firm portrayal of Ellen Sewell, the love interest of the Thoreau brothers. Bert Allen as Deacon Ball makes you grit your teeth over his arrogant insistence on flogging unruly students and his smarmy smirk when Thoreau is arrested. Louise Luster gives Emerson's wife, Lydian, a strong quiet character, who guards and supports her famous husband. Luster's real-life son, Zachary Poremba, plays Emerson's son with spirited animation and the perfect polite manners of that era.
Anthony Meriwether portrays Henry Williams, an escaped slave who enlists Thoreau's help. His plight brings out Thoreau's disgust with the sickening laws that keep any man in bondage. Shadd Bennett as jailer Sam Staples evinces a flair for comedy as he echoes the community's fondness for Thoreau. Staples is so reluctant to arrest Thoreau he offers to pay the taxes himself.
While the actual words of Thoreau are the stars of this show, the technical expertise in sound and lights help move the production along with seamless transitions between scenes, from Henry's idyllic stroll in the woods to the horrific dream sequence, drenched in blood red light, with men marching off to an unconscionable war. The powerful message of Thoreau reaches across time, and as this drama proves, has even greater impact and meaning for today's audiences than for his readers more than 150 years ago.
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail by Jerome Lawrence & Robert Lee
Directed by Robert McDiarmid
At Spontaneous Productions, Inc., 1011 Williams St., Boise (Just off Boise Avenue, in the old fire station.)
8 p.m. April 28, 29, 30, May 5, 6, 7
Tickets $10 at 1-866-468-7624; www.sponprod.com; TicketWeb; or at door