Once again that esteemed American man of letters Ray Bradbury revisits his classic 1953 science fiction novel as source material for the stage. Penned during the height of this country’s McCarthy witch hunts and later adapted into a forgettable 1967 Francois Truffaut pic starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie, Bradbury has written two previous legit adaptations and a 1980 musical. This current manifestation, helmed with an uncertain hand by Charles Rome Smith, provides no new insights into the author’s homage to the power of free thought, but the production does offer laudable performances by a talented ensemble, led by D.B. Sweeney (“Eight Men Out”) and John M. Jackson (a regular on CBS’ “JAG”).
As relevant now as when it was written, “Fahrenheit 451” is a futuristic tale about a civilization where all written word is forbidden. Squads of kerosene-spouting firefighters are mandated to burn books instead of dousing flames. Fireman Guy Montag (Sweeney) obediently follows the dictates of his totalitarian government, even assisting in the development of a more efficient computerized tracker and destroyer of book hoarders.
Serving as Montag’s mentor is the emotionally tortured fire chief Beatty (Jackson), an intellectually transcendent soul who abhors the world he lives in but is driven to support it. Montag begins to question his mundane existence when his burgeoning friendship with free spirited young Clarisse (Becky Wahlstrom) leads him on a dangerous odyssey of self-discovery.
The thrust of Bradbury’s work bogs down under Smith’s static staging. Hindered by the stark lighting of Peter Strauss, the first act plays itself out as a series of lifeless, isolated vignettes, nullifying any sense of thematic evolvement as the emotionally ambivalent Montag slowly begins to comprehend the uselessness of his mindless work and the tediousness of his insipid wife Mildred (Marguerite MacIntyre).
The second act picks up considerably as Montag seeks the aid of Clarisse’s aged grandfather Dr. Faber (Jay Gerber) to be his intellectual mentor. Questioning the young man’s veracity in this age of complete literary annihilation, Faber spouts, “Why waste your time racing about your cage pretending you’re not a squirrel?” There is also a delicious Cyrano-like scene where Montag (assisted by Faber’s verbal instructions via a miked earpiece) engages in a duel of literary wits with the sneeringly superior Beatty.
Sweeney’s Montag evolves quite believably from a doubting everyman who can barely decipher the opening lines from Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities” to the emotionally confident seeker of truth who quite willingly abandons himself within a secret colony of fellow intellectual outcasts. Jackson’s emotionally charged Beatty single-handedly saves the first act, relating a horrific but mesmerizing history of the world’s slow but inevitable intellectual disintegration.
Wahlstrom exudes a palpable inner glow as the inspiring Clarisse. She is balanced quite well by MacIntyre’s nerve-dead Mildred, who spends her life in front of a video wall while dulling her senses with a never diminishing supply of pills. Gerber effectively conveys the fear of an aged man who knows the very essence of his being is in direct conflict with the edicts of the society around him.
The production designs of Joshua Meltzer (sets), Alex Jaeger (costumes) and Nick Denney/Jerry Belich (digital effects) do much to reinforce the realization of Bradbury’s intellectually antiseptic future world.