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Transcendental Thug Life

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Henley Street officially becomes an active theater company with its inaugural show, "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail."

A running commentary of thoughts from the transcendental naturalist Henry David Thoreau, the play feels long because of the comprehensive nature of the material. But it's as appropriate for our time as it was when it was written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee in 1971.

Thoreau, author of "Walden" and "Civil Disobedience," considers issues that echo through his own time, the early '70s and now: preserving nature, the absurdity of materialism, the waste of unprovoked war (in his time, the U.S. invasion of Mexico), the unfairness of racism, the danger of censorship and his "discovery" approach to education. One line that echoes through these three time periods is "A government that guides by materialism and greed is a bad one."

Thoreau (Michael Sater) spends a night in jail for refusing to pay his taxes in protest of the Mexican-American War. He reflects on his life to Bailey, the ever-present body on the other bunk, comes through as vignettes. The script can get a little preachy at times, which is not helped by Sater's sometimes repetitive singsong delivery. Sater, however, is convincing as a quirky yet intellectual nature boy.

The real treat is Alan Criswell as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Setting the standard for the show, Criswell is smooth and believable, and each word totally engages the audience. His performance reflects the adoration Thoreau had for every word Emerson uttered.

Julia Rigby fleshes out her character, Ellen, without much to go on from the script. She's mindful of her space and historical setting and is pleasing in the role. Max Follmer, who plays Waldo's young son Edward, is charming to watch -- though young, he has good instincts as an actor.

The set must be mentioned because it meets the unique challenges of the performance space at Pine Camp while serving the play and actors well. The late Gary Wade, who died just after the set was loaded in, created an abstract jail cell with the use of a hinged grid and two rough-hewn beds. The backdrop is a painted stone wall with an inviting blue sky of clouds that represents Thoreau's ability to transcend the confines of conformity and embrace a higher level of thinking that includes a reverence of nature. It is simple but effective. It's also impermanent, a requirement at Pine Camp, where nothing can be bolted to the floo, and a subtle reminder that Thoreau wouldn't stay in that jail for long, and those ideas would find their way out into the world. S

The Henley Street Theatre Company's production of "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail" through Oct. 13 at Pine Camp Arts & Community Center. Tickets are $15-$20. 340-0115.

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