By John Lyle Belden
On Friday, Jan. 28, one of the leading news stories and topics of Internet buzz was the banning of a Pulitzer-winning novel at a school – an example of how such actions not only deprive our youth of literature but also enable the denial of history. That evening, in a bizarre coincidence, we attended the Opening Night of “Fahrenheit 451” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.
Based on the novel of the same name (referencing the temperature at which paper burns) by Ray Bradbury, adapted by Tobias Andersen (who worked closely with the author), the play is set in a future in which housefires are automatically quenched and Firemen are called upon instead to incinerate books.
Guy Montag (played by Amir Abdullah) loves his job. The printed matter is trivial to him — something society has deemed too distracting and distressing to keep around — he just likes seeing the flames dance. But after a hard day at work, he comes across a neighbor girl, the peculiar Clarisse (Janyce Caraballo) who engages in weirdly sophisticated conversations as she takes her evening walk. Before he can sort out his disquiet, he arrives at home to find his wife Mildred (Jennifer Johansen) overdosed on pills again. After a quick home visit from the paramedics, who routinely undo suicides as part of their rounds, she awakens oblivious to what she had done, eager to spend her day with the television wall. It provides programming so customized, it calls her by name.
Later, Montag and fellow Firemen take down a house surprisingly loaded with printed works, whose owner shockingly takes matters into her own hands. This affects our hero, as curiosity compels him to hide a small novel away in his coat, leading to changes in his life and his thinking, an encounter with an English professor in hiding (Henry Woronicz), and a reckoning with Fire Chief Beatty (Tim Decker).
All but Abdullah play additional roles (Firemen, paramedics, etc.) as needed.
Though Bradbury stayed vague about the year in which this is set, it may not be too far from our future, with so much of the technology already in place: flat-screen TVs; ear buds; ATMs; “Metaverse” connectivity; and a version of the “Hounds,” dog-like robots that hunt books and their readers, now being manufactured by Boston Dynamics.
Also, the play is riddled with literary references, often familiar to even the characters who obediently shun (and destroy) books. This shows the irony of how drenched in past literature our popular culture is, even while we deny the source. It also shows how we take our linguistic touchstones for granted, and how quickly our indifference can lead us to tyranny. For 2022, we can also note how mental distress and illness becomes endemic.
While praising the content, I’ll also note its superb delivery. Abdullah engages us in his hero’s journey, while Decker’s Beatty is a wild study in contrasts, both a steady mentor and Faustian victim finally realizing his cost. Woronicz keeps his reluctant paternal figure neurotic without going over the top, while Caraballo, while charming, isn’t given much to work with – at least she doesn’t stay dead, like in the original novel (a change Bradbury approved, and which shows a bit of manipulation via the “fake news” of her demise). IRT regular Johansen again masters different characters, with divergent moods and motivations. Kudos to director Benjamin Hanna.
Scenic designer William Boles and projection designer Rasean Davonte Johnson have created an artistic masterpiece of a stage, with lines and elements that bridge the “future” tech as envisioned by Bradbury in the 1950s to our 21st century life — classic sci-fi with none of the cheese — a world technological and cold from the perspective of either era.
Performances of “Fahrenheit 451” continue through Feb. 20 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., in the heart of downtown Indianapolis, find tickets and information – including the option of streaming a recording of the play — at irtlive.com.
A postscript: Indy is blessed with literary resources including the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at IUPUI, which helps continue the author’s work in fighting censorship and encouraging literacy and the study of speculative fiction; and the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, which is active in promoting the Hoosier author’s works and involved in the American Library Association Banned Books Week. Please feel free to look into any and all of these.