Here’s a challenge: Try to watch “It Can’t Happen Here,” Santa Rosa Junior College’s latest theatrical production, and not think of a certain national leader.
It can’t be done. I say this whether you are an ardent supporter of our current president or one whose stomach churns at the very mention of the name Donald Trump.
The play, an adaptation on the 1930s-era novel and stage play by Sinclair Lewis, becomes a virtual event association game as the audience tries to match up the realities of today with the imagined 1936 presidential election and its aftermath. Let’s see, did both have financial upheaval, income inequality and throngs of Americans feeling left behind? Yes. How about long shot, unconventional and full-throated presidential candidates promising to shake things up on behalf of the little guy? Yes. Accusations about lying journalists? Yes. Debates about immigration? Yes. And after the election, the imposition of martial law, newspaper censorship and concentration camps? Beg your pardon?
The new version was written by playwrights Tony Taccone, a member of the junior college’s theater advisory committee, and Bennett Cohen. The play was first produced at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and ran in the weeks before last November’s election night.
“It Can’t Happen Here” certainly challenges viewers to consider how American democracy could be threatened, weakened and eliminated.
Its chief characters include Buzz Windrip (Neil Thollander), a Democratic presidential candidate who takes the party nomination away from incumbent Franklin Roosevelt – in part by promising to give every American $5,000. (Lewis’ inspiration for Windrip was Louisiana Senator Huey Long, who a Washington Post book reviewer in 2006 called “the most entertaining tyrant in American history.”) Observing Windrip with increasing amounts of disgust, fascination and alarm is Doremus Jessup (Khalid Shayota), a small-town Vermont newspaper editor. The story revolves around how Jessup, his family and friends react as Windrip takes power and uses it to stamp out all opposition.
On opening night the cast members gave a solid performance, often providing needed nuance and complexity as the story grew increasingly stark. Director Leslie McCauley kept the pace lively and the action on point.
The production notes insist that “It Can’t Happen Here” isn’t about a particular president.
Instead, they present its story as “a timeless tale of how America has (every 50 years of so) leaned toward fascism.” The extent to which you accept the significance of that premise likely will color whether you see the play more as a beacon of light or a blast of fire. Regardless, it does serve as a reminder that democratic institutions fail when citizens jettison good will and consideration of others in favor of winning at any price.
A tip of the hat to cast members Khalid Shayota, Sheila Farmer, Noah Sternhill, Samantha Bohlke-Slater, Ellora Gordon, Devon Keelty, Allison Paine, Neil Thollander, Dylan Kupper, Brett Mollard, Elijah Pinkham, Ryan Sayler, Isiah Jordan, Michael Arbitter and Pales Gensler.
The production also benefited from a captivating opening number performed by singer/songwriter Teresa Tudury.
“It Can’t Happen Here,” recommended for ages 14 and above, runs through Oct. 15 at the college’s Newman Auditorium. Wednesday’s presentation is slated to include a post-show panel discussion with playwright Cohen and faculty members representing the college’s journalism, history and English departments.
For show times and ticket information, click here.
The online site on Tuesday was still selling tickets for this week’s shows. But given the disruption from the recent fires, be advised to check for updates on the college’s social media sites, or call the box office at 527-4307.
This production kicks off the college’s 2017/18 theatrical season. Next up is “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” Nov. 17 to Dec. 3,” followed by “Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter,” March 9-18, and concluding with “Into the Woods,” April 20 to May 6.