Sounding the alarm

Nearly 60 years old, Fahrenheit 451 couldn’t be more relevant.

You could hardly hope for a more passionate defense of great literature than you’ll find in the late Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, currently showing in a fine production at Jobsite Theater. Where else can you hear names like Tolstoy, Dickens and Austen invoked like saints of a true religion, and Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” recited as if it were the key to the meaning of life? Bradbury’s spur to writing Fahrenheit may have been anxiety about the dumbing-down effects of television ­— or so he told the L.A. Weekly in an interview five years ago ­— but his play (based on his 1953 novel) is more an ode to belles lettres than it is an assault on the ever-tenacious boob tube. So if you love Proust, Woolf and Mann, if you believe with Ezra Pound that “literature is news that stays news,” this is your show. And if you want your children to forget Mario Kart 7 for a couple of hours, be sure to take them with you to the Shimberg Playhouse of Tampa’s Straz Center. It’s not every entertainment that tempts the spectator to investigate Poe, Stevenson and Whitman. And even rarer is a pageant that achieves this end with artistry of its own.

As readers of the novel will remember, Fahrenheit is about Guy Montag, a “fireman” in a future dystopia, whose job is to burn books wherever the authorities find them. One day Montag meets Clarisse, an unusually articulate young woman, who asks him if he’s happy and sets off a surge of self-doubt. Further enticing Montag to look at the books he’s been burning is his chief, Capt. Beatty, who admits to having been a literary addict back when it was legal, and who peppers his conversation with an erudition that Montag finds tantalizing. When a woman whose books Montag and his team intend to vaporize chooses to incinerate herself along with her library, Montag’s curiosity passes the tipping point: Now he wants contact with the truths that this martyr was willing to die for. A cowardly old professor may be able to help him; but in a wired environment, the printed page comes with a price. Where reading is proscribed, even the TV viewer you married may become an informer.

Playing Montag is Chris Jackson, and this engaging young performer is nicely effective at demonstrating the ambivalence that eventually turns him from predator to prey. Jackson’s Montag is a compassionate, introverted fireman who even at the start harbors doubts about his métier, and seems viscerally unable to live for a lie. But though Jackson has the lead, it’s Giles Davies as Capt. Beatty who dominates the action, demonstrating rapid-fire instincts, and a command of the literary past so quick and total as to be withering. Unpredictable and excitable, seeming at the same moment to be friend and foe, Davies’ Beatty is a whirling question mark you don’t dare interpret or ignore. The other top performance is turned in by Ned Averill-Snell as Professor Faber, a reluctant hero who’d rather be left alone with his secrets. But Katie Castonguay is charming as the garrulous Clarisse — she seems to have cornered the Bay area market in adorable maidens lately — and Nicole Jeannine Smith does a solid job of embodying Montag’s silly spouse Mildred, a video-dazed bimbo whose dependence on her wall-sized TV is every broadcaster’s dream.

Sturdy work is also turned in by Dana Kovar, Jon Gennari, and Daniel Rosenstrauch in small roles. Katrina Stevenson’s direction is sure-handed, and the only negative in the staging is Brian Smallheer’s dull-looking set, featuring various platforms, doors, and tables devoid of even the least conceptual significance. Smallheer’s lighting is excellent, though, and Beth Tepe-Robertson’s costumes, from the modernistic suits on the firemen to the hyperfrumpy togs on the old Professor, are just about faultless. David M. Jenkins is responsible for the aptly dissonant sound design.

I wish Fahrenheit 451 made it clear what it is about great literature that’s so indispensable. Is it its depth, its moral perspective, its critical distance, its impudence? Does “The Black Cat” have the same value as “Heart of Darkness”? Is To the Lighthouse as essential as Anna Karenina? If these questions remain unanswered, still Fahrenheit affirms the continuing urgency of serious writing, and this alone makes it special. In the age of cable, the Internet, Xbox and Wii, it’s a welcome, dissenting presence.

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