Now, this was more than 50 years ago, but maybe times haven’t changed. The wife of one of Mississippi’s largest landowners wanted more culture in education. So, she circulated a petition to have French taught in the high schools. She made it to the state board. After her impassioned speech, the superintendent replied, “Ma’am, if English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for the state of Mizz-cippi!”
In 2006, Wendy DeVore staged a production of Grease at Fulton High School in Missouri. She toned it down, she thought, even gave it a PG-13 rating in the announcements (“not suitable for small children”). Sometime after the run ended, Mark Enderle, school superintendent, received three irate letters: that abomination had drinking, smoking, and kissing! He watched a video and agreed. When DeVore wanted to stage Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in the spring, Enderle read a summary on the web — “17th-century Salem woman accuses an ex-lover’s wife of witchery” — and banned it. Unlike Mississippi’s superintendent, Enderle had some perspective: “That was me in my worst Joe McCarthy moment,” he told the New York Times, “to some”; he did admit that the controversy “shrunk the boundaries of what is acceptable for the community.”
Playwright Sheri Wilner became fascinated with the story and the culture-war questions it raises. She wrote Kingdom City, a sometimes-comedy, sometimes-drama, always-uneven piece, now in its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse. Kingdom wants to parallel The Crucible — and might, if she can untangle its intentions.
To her credit, Wilner dives into flashpoint-rich terrain. Even more: she gives voice to all sides. In fact, the hippest person in the play is Luke, a youth minister who can talk the talk — “true that” — and preach seductively about staying chaste. Compared to him, everyone else is one-dimensional, as much a needed point of view, for the argument, as a living being.
They also have to recall characters in The Crucible, which puts an allegorical rinse on them and limits their freedom. Like Ether Dome, recently at the La Jolla Playhouse, Kingdom’s another ambitious canvas the playwright has yet to shape effectively.
Daniel and Miriam Bloom have come to Kingdom City (next door to Fulton), Missouri. They’re Jewish New Yorkers. He’s on a fellowship to turn an O. Henry Award–winning short story into a novel. She’s a theater person asked to direct The Crucible for the high school’s drama club ($750 for six weeks’ work). The original director slipped and fell. Was it a sign?
They grow used to hearing “have a blessed day,” but she rankles at the, to her, close-minded culture. Except for Crystal, whose attitude would horrify everyone in Grease, the teens wear “purity rings” and know that “true love waits” until marriage. They won’t even kiss onstage, as Matt and Katie must if they play John and Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible.
Daniel, who’s been blocked for the past seven years, goes “plaid,” i.e., native. He befriends Luke, a youth minister, and nudges toward a conversion that kills his project (a book-burning, no less) and threatens the marriage.
Luke is building a wall out of flat, latte-colored stones. That’s metaphor enough, but the script hammers the point with talks about drawing, crossing, and falling below lines. Most are unnecessary, since Robert Brill’s ingenious set says it visually. Instead of the Potiker Theatre’s rigid bleacher/stage configuration, Brill runs a hardwood gym floor north/south. When the play begins, you could say the north is the Evangelical side, the south, “humanist.” Scenes in the center, early on, become the battleground. After a lengthy first act — long scenes eager to ingratiate, with little information — Brill complicates the picture with a tall cross and, later, a pulpit, at the “humanist” end. Autumn leaves — from Salem, Mass., 1692? — sprawl across the centerline.
The play wavers between strong and weak scenes. Same with the characters. The playwright gives Miriam, Luke, and Crystal some energy. Young Matt and Katie, caught in the middle, have little until they crucible into John and Elizabeth Proctor. And Daniel, as written, is the play’s pawn — or swizzle stick, since he must stir things up by crossing lines. While Miriam is nonstop assertive, and therefore predictable, Daniel is too passive, even when he asserts himself.
As with Ether Dome, it’s clear that revisions are ongoing. One example: Miriam and Daniel threaten to break up. Next time we see them they’re together, in church. Somehow one of the most important scenes for the play — their reunion — is absent. Because it doesn’t mirror The Crucible?
The cast does well with what it’s given. Kate Blumberg (Miriam) and Todd Weeks (Daniel) manage to jump from chipper comedy to dramatic seriousness without too many seams showing. Young Austyn Myers (Matt) and Cristina Gerla (Katie) let eloquent facial expressions fill in gaps. Katie Sapper (Crystal) and Ian Littleworth (Luke) bookend the piece as each other’s Evil Angel.
One of the troubles with writing an allegory — having your play refer to another — the other play can steal focus. Kingdom made me wish I was seeing a fire-breathing, brimstone-belching production of The Crucible. And hearing John Proctor shout, “Is the accuser always holy now?”
Kingdom City, by Sheri Wilner
La Jolla Playhouse, Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive
Directed by Jackson Gay; cast: Kate Blumberg, Todd Weeks, Cristina Gerla, Ian Littleworth, Austyn Myers, Katie Sapper; scenic design, Robert Brill; costumes, David Reynoso; lighting, Paul Whitaker; sound, Nick Drashner
Playing through October 5: Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010. LaJollaPlayhouse.org