Two distinguished men, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, stepped out of history and into the spotlight of Richland’s small Arena Theater May 4 to present the story of “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail,” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.
Ben Stegmair portrayed Thoreau, the young, Harvard-educated leader in the Transcendentalist philosophical tradition and author of the book, “Walden.” The poet Emerson (Shae Hardwick) was Thoreau’s mentor and friend, whom he met at Harvard.
“The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” was written in 1969 and concerns Thoreau’s stand in support of civil disobedience.
The two-hour production featured 17 Richland student actors and 8-year-old actor Jace Petrutsas as Edward, Emerson’s young son. Petrutsas has performed at the Firehouse Theater and the Dallas Children’s Theater. Beth Long portrayed Emerson’s wife, Lydian. The play was directed by Andy Long, Richland’s drama chair and professor.
Produced on a minimalist set, “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” takes place over the course of the one night Thoreau spent in jail. Long said the play deals with serious subjects, like the environment, slavery, oppression and war. He described Thoreau as, “a brilliant thinker and someone who was really ahead of his time back in 1845.”
Long could not have chosen anyone more perfectly suited for the lead role of Thoreau than Stegmair. He was in nearly every scene and gave an outstanding performance.
The action took place in the jail cell Thoreau shared with an unkempt, illiterate cellmate named Bailey (Hunter Martinez) who had a rather comical role. As he pretended to sleep, the audience could hear him snore. It was pretty amusing.
Thoreau was accused of not paying his taxes in protest of the war between the United States and Mexico. He believed the war was unjust and, by not paying his taxes, ended up in jail. His activism was in the form of resistance, a way of disobeying societal norms.
Some of the most touching scenes came from John (Sheldon Vielma), Thoreau’s brother. Another 20-something, he was excellent in the role. Vielma and Stegmair complemented each other as brothers. Both were thin, about the same height and had similar personalities.
In a flashback scene, the audience learns that the brothers tried to start an alternative school where students met to discuss nature. It didn’t work because parents complained about their transcendentalist teachings. The brothers also had the same love interest. As Ellen Sewell, it was Acqurah Smith’s first role on the Richland stage. She didn’t seem to have much enthusiasm and couldn’t be heard very well.
Just as the brothers were having a good time laughing and talking with each other, the scene changes. Church bells ring and tragedy strikes when John dies of blood poisoning while shaving his face. Thoreau is appalled by the meaninglessness of John’s death as he and his mother, played by Nicole Delarosa, try to come to terms with his death.
In the last major scene, Emerson and Thoreau clash over their philosophies and the reality of war. Thoreau decides he must go to Concord Square and declare to the people that he is against the war. The play then transforms into a strange dream sequence regarding the U. S. government and the Mexican-American War.
Thoreau finds himself in a meadow when an escaped slave, Williams (Rico Kartea) comes out of the woods and asks for food. Thoreau shouts to the citizens of Concord as the sergeant, known as Sam (Trevor Powell), and Deacon Ball (Jimmy Jensen) both come out. The characters take up an assault on Mexico. The audience is mesmerized by flashing red strobe lights representing the battle.
The last scene surprises the audience as Sam wakes Thoreau up from a dream and tells him his taxes have been paid by his Aunt Louisa. Thoreau doesn’t want to leave Bailey and urges Sam to let him have a speedy trial.