By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Rachael Chavkin
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
In an October 17, 2015 “New York Post” article, Michael Goodwin raises the rich, albeit uncomfortable, proposition of James Piereson in his July 2015 book “Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order;” namely, “America is due for a revolution.” In the “Post” article, Mr. Goodwin summarizes Mr. Pierson’s argument thusly: “there is an inevitable “revolution” coming because our politics, culture, education, economics and even philanthropy are so polarized that the country can no longer resolve its differences.”
This polarization was certainly the dilemma in mid-seventeenth century England and the polarization there resulted in the English Revolution of 1642-1651 and the Putney Debates of 1647 that focused on the “outcomes” of that revolution. Based on these debates, Caryl Churchill’s “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire,” currently running at New York Theatre Workshop, is an important and engaging dramatic “rehearsal” of the upheaval caused by revolution and the “value” of the consequences of what might seem to be an act of anarchy.
Vinie Burrows, Rob Campbell, Matthew Jeffers, Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Gregg Mozgala, and Evelyn Spahr play various roles without regard to the age or gender or political persuasion of their assigned characters. Under Rachel Chavkin’s commending and assiduous direction that maintains an appropriate pace throughout, the actors grapple successfully with their characters and deliver exceptionally authentic and believable performances. Caryl Churchill gives the cast a stunning script that captures the aftermath of, in Ms. Chavkin’s words, “a revolution that did not quite happen.” An outcome where there was “such profound hope” that individuals believed passionately that the injustice and disenfranchisement they were experiencing could be transformed.
Portraying the hopeful and idealist Diggers, Levellers, and Ranters and the more pragmatic of the period – including Cromwell (the enchanting Vinie Burrows), Henry Ireton (the alluring Matthew Jeffers), and Colonel Nathaniel Rich (the passionate Rob Campbell) – the members of the diverse cast capture the idealism, the anarchism, even the amoralism burgeoning without the King and the Royalists. Farming on common land, economic equality, equality before the law, Protestant radicalism, and claiming one’s own divine spirit (“I am God!”) are the revolutionary themes echoed in Ms. Churchill’s dramatic brew distilled to perfection by the spirited cast. In their solo performances, each actor commands the stage with consummate professionalism and honors each word of the script with perfection.
Riccardo Hernández’s expansive set is saturated with pools of introspective light created by Isabella Byrd. Toni-Leslie James’ period costumes are appropriate and with Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design and Orion Stephanie Johnstone’s original music, richly complement the themes and conflicts of the play.
The New York Theatre Workshop has revived this critically important 1976 drama at an opportune time. Like Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” Caryl Churchill’s “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire” muses on a time in America when God seems to have “gone away” and the center is not holding, where stasis seems to proliferate, and the importance of truth seems to erode. Ms. Churchill and Ms. Chavkin include subtle reminders that their work relates intimately to the present American “inevitable” revolution: actors sport cell phones and drink Coke, and the pragmatists read from the play’s script. The possibility of forward movement informs a welcomed catharsis. This early play by Caryl Churchill is a must-see experience in this time when evolution vies with revolution for the surcease of stagnation.