Review: “J.B.” (City Lit Theater)

Morgan McCabe and Elaine Carlson/Photo: Tom McGrath

Show: “J.B.”

Company: City Lit

Venue: City Lit Theater (1020 W Bryn Mawr Ave)

“Are you ready?” asks one performer to another, before the pair dons masks representing God and the Devil, and play out the story of Job. Her opposite number nods. They adjust their masks, and the play truly begins.

It is a simple enough question to consider. A check-in is necessary before fantasy kicks in, when the focus required for a narrative moves artists to a higher plane. But in this case, it is also a troubling inquiry. Are these performers ready to destroy and judge a man? Are those watching ready to respond to the eternal questions of fairness and justice that lie at the heart of “J.B.”? In director Brian Pastor’s all-female, over-fifty cast at City Lit Theater, not a woman escapes epiphanies about choice, responsibility, and freewill. Set under the cover of a circus big top, and under the insightful eye of playwright Archibald MacLeish, humanity is dissected, and our place on Earth made an object of curiosity not unlike attending a side show.

Two carnival vendors, Mr. Zuss (Elaine Carlson) and Nickles (Morgan McCabe), put aside their popcorn and balloons, in order to regale the audience with a tale of human suffering. Zuss happily embodies God, while Nickles takes off her Satan guise as often as possible, interrogating the suffering set against Job, and lambasting the worthiness of the world. The two choose local banker J.B. (Stephanie Monday) as the subject of the Lord and the devil’s bet, and the audience watches the man and his family, particularly his wife Sarah (Judy Lea Steele), endure endless hardship, sickness, violence, and death.

Stephanie Monday, marssie Mencotti, Elaine Carlson, Shariba Rivers, Barbara Roeder Harris, Susie Griffith, and Rainee Denham/Photo: Tom McGrath.

In the press materials, Pastor points out that the women cast in “J.B.” will be well aware of what it feels like to live without agency. As they have aged out of ingenue status, they are likely offered fewer opportunities to work, while society at large has always devalued their contributions based solely on their gender presentation. What better group to bring MacLeish’s scathing indictment of destiny to light? I am not sure that this concept enriches the story being told, or that the idea even tracked for me, but I will say that the performances are all wonderful, with rich character work especially shining through in the relationships between Monday and Steele, and Carlson and McCabe. Likewise, the ensemble work by Barbara Roeder Harris, Shariba Rivers, Rainee Denham, Susie Griffith, and marssie Mencotti is strong, as they play comforters, children, and vagrants, building out a world we recognize all too well. Pastor works well in the City Lit space, allowing the actors to range across platforms right up close to the audience, as they question the value of a life well lived on Earth. He keeps the performances sharp and clear, as each actor moves in and out of their own personalities to adopt their roles. It is clear when McCabe bemoans her tale because she as Nickles is doubtful, and when Satan is sowing discord with Mr. Zuss.

The circus feel comes across in an impressively large set by Kaitlyn Grissom, with platforms and a creamy color scheme that pop under Jess Fialko’s light design. The muted tans and browns of Alaina Moore’s costumes give the Earth-bound characters a grounded feel, while David Knezz’s masks evoke Greek tragedy and the allegory of medieval theatre. Overall, the production has a cheerful feel undercut by MacLeish’s damning questions, and that vibe works well for the material. I only wish that there had been more music throughout the performance. The circus workers sing snatches of folk tunes here and there, but more live music or underscoring would have made the characters’ in-story choices even more haunting.

No one is ever ready to face a hardship, but City Lit’s “J.B.” makes the case that when suffering occurs, the only action worth taking is making the choice to go on, whatever causes it. While actors can remove themselves from an illusion, J.B. the banker cannot, and the character’s rejection of heaven and hell makes MacLeish’s point that humans are strongest when taking on hardship without flinching.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: All creatures under heaven face adversity through circus/mask work.

DIE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”