At The Circus with God and the Devil in ‘J.B.’

At The Circus with God and the Devil in ‘J.B.’

The human suffering that takes place in this world is enough to make anyone ask “Why?” This word, which has probably crossed the mind of anyone whose life has been touched by horror and injustice, forms one of the themes of Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B.” This modern retelling of the Bible story of Job deals with an ever-present question...why humans must suffer and how they handle this suffering. Some turn to God no matter what, convinced that somehow this is all part of His plan. Others harden their hearts, positive that any belief in a divine power is a foolish attempt to make oneself feel better. Generally, such emotional and serious material is kept off of the high school stage. But Fairfax High School is breaking that mold, and performing “J.B.” this spring.

In the Bible story which inspired this play, Job is the luckiest man in the world. He is happily married, has five children and is prospering brilliantly in his business. To test Job’s faith and love for Him, God decides to take all of this away. He shatters Job’s world, destroys his family and leaves him diseased and broken, pleading to God as he lies on a dung heap in misery. MacLeish recreates this plot in “J.B.” He sets the story in a circus, with God and Satan (known as Nickles and Mr. Zuss) directing the whole show. Within this modern context, characters and audience alike are forced to grapple with the issue of human suffering; why it happens and who, if anyone, controls it. This is incredibly mature material for high school students to handle, and director Wendy Flora acknowledges the dangers of this. “A high-concept show like this is risky,” she said. “It has enormous potential to succeed and enormous potential to fail.” However, she believes that this is actually an excellent play for high school students, who are at the age where they begin to ask big questions for themselves: “What do I believe? Why do I believe it? How do I go about finding answers?”

The high school students in question are eager to stretch and expand their abilities for this show. It appears that they will have a little help from unusual sources. Chrisopher Marino, who has experience working at the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C., will serve as vocal coach and A.J. Gruban, a professional lighting designer, has been hired to work with student designer Roberto Carmona. Carmona is thrilled to be working with a professional. “I’ll learn so much about real light design,” he says. He hopes to be able to “experiment” with the lighting in order to create a dark and ethereal feeling on stage. The other designers for the show seem to have a similar vision. “‘J.B.’ is set in a circus. That can’t change,” says set designer Grace Royer. “But there’s going to be an other-worldly quality to it.” Costume designers Natalie Ciavorella and Nik Taylor are eager to start making the elaborate circus masks for the show. “We want to emphasize the circus setting but at the same time transfer it into Job’s reality,” says Ciavorella. The student designers are being given a good deal of license. “The best part is the amount of artistic freedom I’ve been given by the director,” says Royer. Stage manager Sierra Salman sums it up when she says, “I want the designers to get what they want.”

Fairfax’s actors are preparing themselves to deal with the high-level material in J.B. “It’s in verse...that just takes it to a whole other level because the language is different.” says Josiah Case, who will be playing Job. Joanna Gibson, who will be playing Job’s wife Sarah, is interested to tackle the issue of faith, since she herself is not religious. “I’m not Christian, and Sarah’s always talking about God and faith,” she says. “It’ll be fun to pretend.” Above all, the actors are thrilled to be part of a show with such a strong message. “This isn’t just any high school show,” says Case. “When this audience walks out of the theatre, they’ll be taking something away. My hope is that they will talk about the play and that they will gain more from the experience through that discussion.”