Let's play a game. Try to forget the name of the play printed right above this review and then see what you would make of these hints about what's playing at the Aurora right now. It involves: 1.) A secret list of transgressors, many of them high-ranking politicians; 2.) An alluring but controversial young woman in the spotlight, her moral and sexual purity subject to scrutiny and speculation; 3.) Much legal drama where hearsay counts as evidence, where counsel and witness alike plumb the depths of the lowest courtroom denominator, and where the original purpose of the case gets dwarfed by larger cultural and political anxieties — all as an allegory for the audience's own time.
Partial credit if you guessed The Crucible, Arthur Miller's 1952 play that used the Salem witch trials to expose the absurdity and gross indecency of McCarthyism. That play is so similar to Mark Jackson's Salomania, which is what's actually at the Aurora now, you might be gripped by the urge to see if lines like "The trial presses on around me, despite me" also appear in Miller's work.
But if the two plays have analogous cores, Jackson's world premiere also diverges and balloons from its central drama in a way that couldn't be more different from Miller's economic and relentless storytelling. Salomania is based on the true story of Maud Allan (Madeline H. D. Brown), an actress and dancer who achieved international fame in the early 1900s for her interpretation of Oscar Wilde's controversial Salome, which centers upon her notorious Dance of the Seven Veils. It's World War I, and headlines about Allan's latest performance or outfit (or lack thereof) are like the little bits of chocolate that occasionally supplement soldiers' rations: rare respites from "all this quiet in no man's land." But this infamy makes her vulnerable to the possibly insane fulminations of Noel Pemberton-Billing (Mark Anderson Phillips), an MP and radical newspaper editor. He accuses her of being part of the "Cult of the Clitoris," and of being listed in a little black book with 47,000 names of "sexual perverts," who by virtue of their deviancy are undermining the war effort. The result? A libel suit — i.e., more readers.
Jackson, who wrote and directed, attempts to flesh out this intrigue with a host of smaller roles so as to give a picture of an entire society in turmoil. That includes Maud's San Francisco family and their scandalous past, ex-Prime Minister Asquith and his wife, a bartender, aristocrats, literati, conspiracy theorists, soldiers, a girlfriend, and even Oscar Wilde himself (an achingly affecting Kevin Clarke), in his broken but still prolix post-sodomy trial, post-labor camp days. From wooden crates, chairs, and burlap, Nina Ball, a master of versatile scene designs, has fashioned a set that can suggest all these individuals' various environs: a bar, a courtroom, a theater, the trenches.
Almost every additional character expounds on the profound: the powers and limitations of theater, the class inequities that warfare brings into sharp relief, the ties between sexual privacy and human dignity. Amid this pretty pontificating, the strong seven-person ensemble creates moments of weight and poignancy. In one scene, Alex Moggridge and Marilee Talkington are at once endearing and doleful as a couple ready — even desperate — for love but whose familial scars and anger at the war make them vulnerable to even the slightest slight. Yet even they cannot obscure the play's central flaw: that breadth comes at the cost of depth.
Central characters that could be compelling are one-dimensional. Why is Pemberton-Billing waging this legal battle? Because he's craaaazy! Why does Allan so goad our sympathies? Because she's allowed not a single flaw, instead wafting around the stage like an angel of righteousness, a perfect 21st-century liberal before her time.
Still, Jackson stages scenes of breathtaking beauty. To watch Brown, with her secretive, close-lipped smile, dance in Callie Floor's wispy, beaded costumes to Sibelius's plaintive "Valse Triste," is to feel a longing that transcends politics and time and sex — a longing for a world that doesn't cheat us out of the lives we deserve. Salomania offers much of worth— but also too much muddle.
Miller himself wouldn't have been the right playwright to tell this moving, funny story. (Would our theater today even be able to take a new Miller seriously?) But the tragedian's ruthless focus might have helped shape it into all that it could be.