Henry David Thoreau: A passion for moral justice

Those looking for a thrilling story involving the government, slavery, oppression, war, activism and death should look no further than the Richland drama department’s final spring production, “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.”

Directed by Richland drama chair Andy Long, the play describes philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s stand in support of civil disobedience.

Written in 1970 by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, the playwrights describe Thoreau’s life (1817-1862) as a “fascinating paradox.” They believe he belongs more to the culture of the 1970s than to the age in which he lived.

Long agrees that Thoreau is fascinating because he was an extremely educated man who seemed to spurn education and wanted to live a simple life.

“The play deals with a lot of very serious subjects, like ‘how do you stand up to the government when you think the government is doing the wrong thing,’” Long said. He picked the play because he felt it was a challenge for Richland drama students.

As a young man in 1849, Thoreau penned timeless words in his essay “Civil Disobedience.”

“If the law is of such a nature that it requires you to be an agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law,” he wrote.

A few years before, Thoreau refused to pay taxes to the U. S. government, which was involved in the Mexican War. He believed the war was unjust because it lacked Congressional approval.

That’s where the story begins. The play opens with Thoreau sharing a jail cell with a cellmate named Bailey.

“The war with Mexico that the U.S. fought has been considered by many historians to be one of the most corrupt and bloody wars America has ever fought,” Long said. It was a war fought to claim land owned by Mexico.

The play leads one to think about when war is necessary and when it is not, Long said. It also contemplates topics that are relevant to today that students may be thinking about.

“The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail’ is really relevant right now because there’s a lot of division going on in our country, whether one has trust in the government, growing the government or reducing it,” Long said.

The play also brings up the concept of transcendentalism or the concept of living outside of yourself. Long said it’s the idea that people live in a bubble and are only worried about things that directly affect them.

“Transcendentalism is where you think outside of that bubble and realize that your actions have an effect on the actions of everyone around you,” Long said.

“The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” has a cast of 18, all Richland students except Jace Petrutsas who plays 8-year old Edward Emerson, the son of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor and friend. Petrutsas is a student at St. Thomas Aquinas School and has acted in multiple shows in the Metroplex.

Ben Stegmair has the challenging role of Henry David Thoreau and Shae Hardwick plays Ralph Waldo Emerson. Other cast members include Beth Long (Lydian), Nicole Delarosa (Mother), Sheldon Vielma (John), Hunter Martinez (Bailey), James Jensen (Deacon Ball), Acqurah Smith (Ellen), Trevor Powell (Sam), Rico Kartea (Williams) and Petrutsas as Edward.

The ensemble includes Giovanny Castro, Celeste Molano, Konstantin Terentiev, Andres Camacho, Val Jimenez, Michael Hampton and Emma Koller.

“The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” will run at 7:30 p.m. April 30 to May 4, with a preview April 29 in the Arena Theater of Fannin Hall, F108. It’s a two-hour production with a 15-minute intermission. The play is free and open to the public. It’s suitable for all ages.