You can’t open a theatre company press release these days without finding the words “never more relevant than today” somewhere in the text to describe their latest production. (Really, guys? Legally Blonde – the Musical never more relevant than today?) Much like how a stopped clock is right twice a day, you will occasionally come upon a production to which that description aptly fits. Such is the case with the Santa Rosa Junior College Theatre Arts production of It Can’t Happen Here, running now on the Santa Rosa campus through October 15.
Based on Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel of the same name, it tells the tale of populist Presidential candidate Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip (Neil Thollander) who, after defeating the party establishment, campaigns for the Presidency on a platform of restoring the country’s “greatness”, with an emphasis on patriotism, “traditional values”, and law and order. Sound familiar?
It’s actually more the tale of Doremus Jessup (Khalid Shayota), a small-town newspaper editor who doesn’t think Windrip has a chance. His naivety comes back to haunt him as Windrip wins and begins to steer the nation from democracy to dictatorship – dissent is outlawed, the press is strangled, and mass incarcerations begin, all under the watchful eye of a new paramilitary force known as the “Minute Men”. A resistance is formed and Jessup and his family join, but there is a price to be paid by those in opposition.
Lewis wrote the novel when fascism was on the rise in Europe and a segment of the American electorate actually admired and supported it. People tend to forget how long Hitler was in power (and the steps he took to get there) before the outbreak of World War II. Change didn’t happen overnight, it came over time and with the assent of most of the citizenry. Lewis recognized this and saw hints of the same thing happening in America via the policies and potential Presidential run of Louisiana’s Huey Long and the oratory of popular radio broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin. (Some see Windrip as Lewis’s take on Long and his “Bishop Prang” representing Coughlin.)
Lewis adapted his novel for the stage, and it was produced several times courtesy of the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal program designed to put unemployed theatre artists and technicians to work. Yes, this country once subsidized the arts. In 2016, Berkeley Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Tony Taccone and playwright Bennett Cohen co-authored a new stage adaptation and it is that version being presented now at SRJC.
As the college’s larger Burbank Auditorium is being renovated, Director Leslie McCauley has this production running in the smaller and less theatrically-inclined Newman Auditorium. There’s no set to speak of with just various tables, chairs and an occasional flag representing different locales. The cast of fifteen takes on multiple roles and prove themselves quite adept at quick changes to accommodate this. Khalid Shayota is solid in the central role of Jessup, perhaps bringing his own life experience of living under a dictatorship into the role. Sheila Farmer seems to have stepped out of a Frank Capra movie as local power broker Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch and also Jessup’s oblivious wife. Neil Thollander shows nice range as an unctuous Windrip and as an underground leader. Elijah Pinkham is quite creepy as Shad Ladue, once Jessup’s hired hand and now tasting power as a leader of the Minute Men. Samantha Bohlke-Slater and Ellora Gordon do well as Jessup’s daughters Mary and Sissy. Sissy is a young idealist while Mary is forced to deal with the harshest realities of the world they live in.
It’s Lewis’s words, more than anything, that make this production stand out – the haunting ring of familiarity to the denigration of a free press, the clamor for a return to law and order, the drumbeats of impending war. It’s tough at times to remember that Lewis’s novel is semi-satirical. While there’s humor in the show, it gets less and less funny as the similarities to the present state of our national affairs grow. But that’s okay, because…
It can’t happen here.
It Can’t Happen Here
presented by the Santa Rosa Junior College Theatre Arts Department
** Remaining performances Cancelled Due to Fire Situation **
Santa Rosa Junior College
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Photo by Tom Chown