YSU Student production of 'J.B.' offers chance for dialogue after play
The actors will be working with free verse.
By L. CROW
The Youngstown State University theater department has made a commitment to present one play each year that creates an opportunity for dialogue after its performance.
The theme of the play may be controversial, or simply one that provides a catalyst for communication between groups of people who may have diverse viewpoints.
This year, the play is Archibald MacLeish's "J.B."
It's based on the Book of Job. Director Dennis Henneman says it isn't about religion, but about human suffering and how we deal with it. He also suggested the work because it gives the students an opportunity to work with verse, although he points out that it is free verse, and the audience may not even notice, except that the language is very rich.
MacLeish was poet laureate, the official national poet of the United States. He published "J.B." in 1958, which quickly became a Broadway hit, earning him both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award.
"MacLeish wrote this play in reaction to World Wars I and II, and the Holocaust," said Henneman. "It poses the question of how do we cope with suffering. Job is the great sufferer, and while we may think of him in the Judeo-Christian tradition, he also appears in the Quran, the holy book of Islam. The issue of suffering is addressed in all religions. MacLeish was an atheistic humanist. And suffering is ever present today, in the form of war and terrorism, hurricanes, tsunamis and other natural disasters."
It's a circus
The story takes place in a circus. The popcorn vendor, Nickles, and the balloon vendor, Zuss, play Satan and God. J.B. (Job) is a wealthy banker with five children, who loses everything -- his children, wife, wealth and health. But will he curse or praise God? Henneman stressed that this play is about "why do bad things happen to good people?" and not about religious beliefs.
Johnny Yurko plays Zuss (God), or someone through whom God speaks. Yurko, who identifies his spiritual beliefs as agnostic, said he loves this play, and it has helped him understand differing viewpoints, but has also been a real challenge.
"How do you play God?" he mused. "God is everything from a fat guy who is enlightened to a ray of sunlight. So how do you study for a part like this? How would God walk and talk? Would he be a whisper or be a crack of thunder? This role has given me lots of room to explore."
Yurko also said he likes the music that is being integrated into the performance.
"In 1969, while I was teaching in Nebraska, Professor Alan Brandes wrote music for our performance of 'J.B.' to highlight the emotional impact of the dialogue," said Henneman. "He has since passed on, but his widow gave permission for us to use his music. Bernadette Lim, a composition student here at YSU, wrote some additional music."
Anthony Scarsella plays one of the three "Comforters," Bildad, the Historian. "We all show up in Act II, and we don't actually comfort J.B.; we torment him," said Scarsella. "We don't like each other, and we give J.B. nasty, angry answers to why he is suffering. It is MacLeish's social commentary on clergy who often don't care about the people they are there to help, but are more concerned with their own agenda."
After each performance, Henneman has invited local experts in many differing religious and philosophical viewpoints to facilitate discussion among audience members on the issue of human suffering. Everyone who attends the play is urged to stay for the symposium.