Very much alive in Great Britain, the play of ideas has largely disappeared from the American stage (where, admittedly, it was never in notable supply to begin with). I'm speaking here not of intellectual discourse or political intent within individual dramas — cf., Tony Kushner, Larry Kramer, Eve Ensler et al. — but of a specific style of playwriting in which opposing and keenly held beliefs clash resoundingly on the field of ethical battle. Think Maxwell Anderson's Barefoot in Athens, Jules Feiffer's Knock Knock, E. L. Doctorow's rhetorical exercise Drinks Before Dinner, or, on a more specifically political scale, Gore Vidal's The Best Man.
It's an enormous pleasure, then, to encounter the University Theatre at N.C. State production of Another Antigone, playing April 1-4 at Thompson Theatre. Its author, A. R Gurney, Jr., is known primarily for his comic-ironic takes on suburban domesticity. In this intensely literary (and exceptionally literate) 1988 colloquy, however, Gurney unleashes a maelstrom of histrionic fireworks on a contest between traditionalism and academic freedom. It's a robust, deeply felt work, and under the exceptionally sensitive direction of Terri L. Janney, Another Antigone bristles with the sort of scrupulous intellectual vigor and emotional impact we've come to expect from the likes of David Hare and Howard Brenton but not, alas, emanating much from this side of the pond.
Briefly, the play concerns a combative and inflexible classics professor, Henry Harper (Rick Lonon), for whom the word "crusty" may have been coined, butting up against Judy Miller (Kate Isley), a somewhat murderously determined student convinced that her modern rendition of Sophocles pass as the final paper for Harper's class on Greek tragedy. Denied the "A" she feels her work deserves, Judy becomes equally intent on expanding and self-producing a performance of her well-intentioned but hopelessly wrong-headed adaptation and in exposing Harper's (to her) unreasonable academic dogma. The professor, meanwhile, faces decreasing enrollment and increasing scrutiny of his methods, which boomerang into charges of sexism (patent and demonstrable) and anti-Semitism (more complicated and not so easily provable).
Gurney could well have chosen to indulge in his own Antigone by paralleling the actions of Sophocles in a prosaic and literal sense. Instead, in setting his own Creon and Antigone on a course of inevitable disaster (Harper's oft-invoked "clash between Athens and Jerusalem"), Gurney sidesteps the obvious to focus on how misunderstanding and personal hubris contribute to a ruination, not simply of Judy and Harper but of the professor's Dean and would-be companion Diana Eberhart (Catherine Rodgers) and Judy's conflicted boyfriend David (Francis Sarnie IV.) What's at stake here is not, as in the original, the most urgent questions of state and inherited guilt but the more mundane yet equally momentous means by which an excess of pride precedes the fall of everyone involved.
There are debits in Janney's production which, while not fatal, do make for some rough crossing. In updating Gurney's 1988 topicality, some wit has been lost. Substituting "Susan Sarandon and George W." for "Jane Fonda and Ronald Reagan," for instance, dulls the piquancy of Gurney's invocation of diametrically opposed political antagonists, as does "North Korea" for the original's "Soviet Russia." Similarly, Judy mentions falling asleep during a film festival screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre where Gurney names the movie as Psycho; more timely but less likely. In addition, the choice of Dave Matthews over the Boss begs a question: do young people no longer listen to Bruce Springsteen? I also take exception to dividing the play into two acts, despite Gurney's stricture that Another Antigone be performed without intermission; sending the audience out for a smoke and a candy bar undermines the production's own growing power.
These may be minor cavils, but the matter of pronunciation is more to the point. Both Isley and Lonon make "Juvenile" sound like "Juvenal," which, in the context of Classicism, causes confusion. Worse, Isley habitually mispronounces "nuclear." A small matter, you may think, except that the issue of disarmament is crucial to Judy's version of Antigone, and her passion is undercut by her use of the dread, apparently epidemic mispronunciation "nuculer" (thank you so much, Michael Douglas.)
However I might have loved Janney's original, ideal casting of Becky Johnston and the sorely missed Mike Roark as Harper and Diana, it is with Kate Isley's uncertain appearance as Judy that Another Antigone falters most seriously. It is not my intention to be cruel about what is, after all, a student performance, but Isley lacks the assurance and technique required to fully transmit Judy's fire and passionate, if misguided, activism. Her naïveté and self-importance are written into the script, but Isley too often comes across as merely arrogant. The actress also lacks a sense of timing; she undercuts Judy's moments of doubt and self-recognition by rushing, and inadvertently turns the student's final act of self-destruction into something easily misapprehended by the audience as comic.
Much better is Francis Sarnie IV, who makes David's growing fascination with Sophocles and his burgeoning distrust of Judy's motives plangent and quietly agonizing. David is perhaps the most innocent victim of the internecine academic warfare between Judy and Harper, and Sarnie gives us the character in full, his newfound scholarly excitement quashed by forces beyond his control. The always-dependable Catherine Rodgers is equally solid as the woman who most fully appreciates and deplores Harper's modus operandi. Her Diana is decent, loyal, deeply torn between her affection for the professor and the administrative duties that draw her into the conflict against her will. Rodgers's shock at unwittingly handing Judy the deadliest bomb in her arsenal is palpable; as realization sets in, our stomachs flop over in sympathy with her own.
Rick Lonon plays Harper as the entrenched, inflexible demi-despot Gurney imagines — unable to deviate from any standard course, and rushing full-tilt toward his own version of Sophoclean exile. That Harper is in fact utterly correct in his appreciation of Judy's essential misuse of classical tragedy, and that his academic standards are, however old-fashioned, becoming ever more sadly irrelevant to higher education cannot save him from the pitiable end to which he condemns himself. Lonon gets all of this right, as well as the professor's jolly, avuncular and unintentionally damning bonhomie. To see this proud, intelligent man reduced to begging a student for his continued employment is shattering. Lonon makes Harper's eventual acceptance of his own responsibility for his downfall deeply, ineffably, moving.
Janney's lighting designs are no less effective than her fluid, lively direction. Ida Bostian's costumes are bright and appropriate, save for one of David's ensembles: must his tracksuit look so much like a pair of satin pajamas? There are no quarrels, however, with David Jensen's marvelous, evocative set. Anchored at the back by a quartet of Doric columns suggesting both the Boston university in which the play is set and its over-hanging Classical themes, its platformed playing areas graced by downstage marble and upstage Gothic, Jensen's designs compliment and extend Gurney's ideas in a most immediate fashion.
Despite my reservations, with Another Antigone Gurney, Janney and Company merit an unassailable "A."
University Theatre at N.C. State presents Another Antigone Thursday-Saturday, April 1-3, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 4, at 3 p.m. in Thompson Theatre at N.C. State University. $14 ($6 for NCSU students and $12 seniors, students, NCSU faculty and staff, and members of the N.C. State Alumni Association). 919/515-1100. University Theatre: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/anotherantigone.htm.