Saturday, November 14, 1970

On stage — "Thoreau" in Concord

In a rowboat on Walden Pond, Henry Thoreau (Terry Beasor) points to a sparrow for Ellen (Jean Aldrich)
By David Sterritt
Concord, Mass.

Every now and then a play comes along that is intimately connected with a particular place; its characters and events cannot be imagined outside a specific milieu or environment. “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” — the latest work by “Inherit the Wind” authors Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee — is such a play. Characters like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are inconceivable without their New En- gland backgrounds, and the famous Massachusetts places like Walden Pond and the Concord jail that have become nearly as well-known as the men who imortalized them.

So it is particularly fitting that the New England premiere of “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” should be presented (under the auspices of the American Playwrights Theater program) by the Concord Players. There is a special pleasure in watching such a drama unfold right in the middle of the place where it all really happened — though there’s a small drawback, too, in that even the most subtle bit of local-color humor is likely to draw such gales of laughter from the audience that several succeeding lines are drowned out.

Sense of humor
The play itself is a witty, quickly paced affair that traces a series of well-known events and outlines a few well-known philosophies with a good sense of humor and an appropriate insistence on searching out all manner of contemporary parallels.

Both time and place change fluidly, though the play is basically structured as a series of chronological flashbacks—home base being the jail cell where Thoreau is imprisoned (though he doesn’t think of it that way) for refusing to support an “immoral war” by paying his taxes.

Sound familiar? A start-lingly large portion of this play sounds desperately fam-iliar, including a psychedelic antiwar dream sequence that could have come from some restrained version of “Hair,” and the reading of an early antiwar speech by Abraham Lincoln that could have been written by a Mobilization Day militant.

In a sense, however, one begins to feel that Messrs. Lawrence and Lee were a bit too enamored of these relevant parallels, crucially important as they admittedly are. The program notes speak, in a dreadful cliché, of “the now Thoreau,” and there are times when the play seems based more on clever epigrams and intellectual one-liners than on a pervading thematic structure. The darker sides, the truly puzzling sides of Thoreau’s personality are also thoroughly ignored. We are presented with a crystal-clear, neatly worked out portrait of a man who; we are continually informed, was regarded as quite the paradox by nearly everyone who knew him, from his mother to his girl friend to the eminent Dr. Emerson.

The Concord Players have given “Thoreau” a skillful and consistently entertaining productior whose energy and pace help compensate for the play’s slightly overlong duration and the shortcomings of the players — every one of whom nonetheless offers a performance of great merit by community-theater standards. The production continues tonight and on Nov. 19, 20, 21, 27, and 28.