“What will happen when America has a dictator?”
This is the question posed on a first edition cover of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. Berkeley Rep’s new adaptation of the book shows us exactly how it can happen here, and it does so with verve and determination. The play begins by expanding on Thornton Wilder’s conception of the Stage Manager in Our Town. However, instead of one person commenting on the action taking place, several characters step forward to address the audience, advancing and condensing the plot.
The large, hard-working cast moves briskly as they hit their marks and deliver their lines with a period-appropriate earnestness and enthusiasm. Lisa Peterson directs the play with smart choreography, the comings and goings keep the story moving right along. The set design is minimal yet flexible enough to allow for mobile painted canvases to offset the stark brick-walled background. In short, the production does everything right, everything that the theatre can do to make this 80-year-old document live.
Unfortunately, the source material, with its alarmist and dated tropes, flatlines by intermission. Like Eugene O’Neill’s 1933 play Ah, Wilderness!, Lewis’s story begins with one family’s, the Jessups’, Fourth of July picnic. By choosing that most patriotic of holidays, the symbolism of the day was not lost on either writer. With the Presidential election only a few weeks away, it’s also easy to understand why Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen chose to adapt it.
When bad things start to happen to the Jessups, an ordinary American family, how could a liberal audience not identify with their plight? A fear-mongering Senator named Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip rides a wave of disgruntled populism into the office of President of the United States of America in 1936. If Mr. and Mrs. Jessup and their three children have behaved as morally upstanding members of their community, what could they have done to deserve such a leader?
The play doesn’t take the long view in order to contend with what the family could have done to prevent Windrip’s ascension. Doremus Jessup, the patriarch, is an outspoken and openly defiant journalist. Lewis imagines the writer as both hero and martyr. Even though his column gets noticed by the authorities, it feels as if the playwright overestimates the value of his efforts to influence public opinion. But then a writer often does.
What It Can’t Happen Here quickly moves away from is examining the root cause of fascism and its brutal attractions. When Senator Windrip becomes President, he is instantly, and properly demonized. You can almost smell the sulfur when he arrives on stage beaming his reptilian grin. By the time the second act opens, the play only dwells on the consequences of his presidency: book burning, martial law, a rise to power of the uneducated classes, the end of free speech, and politically justified assassinations.
At this point, the intellectual exploration, and rigor, is given up in favor of an espionage thriller rushing toward its denouement. The concepts are suddenly enlarged like captions telegraphed in a graphic novel: Revenge! Escape! Rebellion! The staging of the production never stops being inventive — with trap doors and drum rolls that snap us to attention — but it remains in service to a set of ideas that lack nuance, that the culture, certainly popular culture, has outgrown.
It Can’t Happen Here taps into a liberal’s sense of helplessness and dread at the thought of Red State America dictating the laws of the land to everyone who votes Blue. And that’s the problem with the play. Since this production takes place in one of the Bluest American cities, does it only aim to stoke fear in the audience? It’s not that there’s an air of smugness; it’s more like let’s pat ourselves on the back for being politically and beatifically correct. The play would undoubtedly have a different life if it were mounted in conservative areas of this or any other state, in places where fascism is either forgotten, misunderstood or unapologetically hoped for. That’s where the play’s ability to shift someone’s opinion or consciousness deserves to be tested.
It Can’t Happen Here, through Nov. 6 at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org.