Things Heat up at the White Theater with Fahrenheit 451

It is said that many science fiction writers have been able to tell the future with their stories. The research they do when writing is based on current and future trends and can be almost prescient at times. Ray Bradbury was one of the most prolific sci-fi writers of all. He published more than 30 books and close to 600 short stories. His works have been made into a variety of television shows, movies and plays. His book entitled Something Wicked This Way Comes has crept into contemporary vernacular as a phrase many of us use when discussing a foreboding future.

Fahrenheit 451 is just such a work. The title comes from the temperature at which paper burns. The book was published in 1953 (the play was adapted by Bradbury in 1979 and minorly updated in the 90’s) and foretold of a dystopian future where firemen no longer put out fires, because almost all the buildings are now made of non-flammable materials. Instead, they burn books. Reading books has become illegal and the firemen are called to eradicate these instruments of education from the face of the earth. The government has replaced books with wall sized televisions that create mind numbing “entertainment” to keep the citizens in check. Over time, books became shorter and simpler, then they gave way to TV shows which played to the lowest common denominator and eventually books were outlawed and people were trapped in a very simple and controlled environment. See what I mean about prescient?

The story follows Guy Montag (Robert Hingula), a fireman who is beginning to feel that maybe the life he has isn’t enough. His wife Mildred (Jessica Franz) is a product of the simple and controlled life, but she and others need pills to shut out the drive of humans to question the status quo and ponder new things. Overdoses have become so mundane that robot like medics are routinely sent to save the mundane lives of people who use too much.

Montag spends some time speaking to his young neighbor Clarisse (Zoe London) about things that lead him to ponder what life should be. She and her grandfather Faber (Don Leonard) live a different life. One with light, laughter and intelligence. One that is as rare as the wooden building they live in. It’s also a dangerous life in this society. These discussions make Montag restless yet attract him like a moth to flame.

Fire Chief Betty (Joshua Gleason) is Montag’s superior at the firehouse and a contradiction unto himself. He is old enough to have read books just before it was outlawed, but not old enough or capable enough to understand their power. When the firemen are called to burn books at Mrs. Hudson’s (Elizabeth A. Hillman) home, Beatty and Hudson have a confrontation as Hudson has decided she will be burned with her books, which she feels are alive. Montag sees this and his questions about life become impossible to hide, setting the stage for the rest of the play.

This is a highly stylized production. Joshua Gleason designed and built the sets that go a long way towards representing the dystopian world in all it’s starkness. The use of a rolling unit to portray multiple locations is highly effective and flows seamlessly from scene to scene. Jayson Chandley’s lighting design is a high point. The effects of colors, extreme angles, special effects and the light cutting through the smoke all heighten the dysfunction of the this society.

Sound is usually something that is difficult to noticewhen done right on most shows, but in this instance Alex Davila has some challenges to bring the world to life with “interactive” television, talking books and numerous other effects. Davila excels. The sound design was incredibly  effective in setting the mood and ushering us through this alternative reality.

Overall the cast does a good job with some tricky dialogue. Director Bill Christie has created a very complex world and moves the actors and the show very well. However, the production seemed disjointed. The ages of the actors seem contrary to the characters. Montag is supposed to be a young 31 year old firefighter who has risen in the ranks and is just losing that youthful outlook, yet he looks almost the same age as Clarisse’s grandfather Faber and Chief Betty, both of whom also appear too young for the roles. And the actors just don’t create a cohesive story as their characters seemed at times to be acting in different versions of the play. There are also times when keeping the pacing up zips us through the dialogue too quickly and we lose lines and meaning, both of which are important.

Zoe London’s Clarisse is a stand out with a very clear characterization who is so clearly different from the rest. Her portrayal was the catalyst that starts Montag on his journey with her question “Are you happy”. Clearly no one is happy in this world.

Other strong performances include Jessica Franz’s Mildred who shows tremendous internal conflict and and even stronger denial. Her scenes with Alice (Megan Segars) and Helen (Laura Schwartz) show how she doesn’t want to feel anything, yet she clearly doesn’t want to stay as she is.  Elizabeth A. Hillman is also very compelling as the old woman who loves her books so much that she is won’t let anyone burn them but her… even if it means she dies with them. Her showdown with Gleason’s Beatty was very powerful and revealing.

This is not a light-hearted evening, but it is extremely relevant in today’s culture and worth attending, especially if you like sci-fi. Bradbury saw something 65 years ago during the dawn of television and we are seeing some of this coming true today. Let’s hope that we as a society don’t ever reach the void of his vision.

Fahrenheit 451 runs Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 and closed Sunday at 2 pm at the White Theater in the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park.

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