Review: Fahrenheit 451
By Perry Tannenbaum
Each time Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 returns to Charlotte, it seems like a telltale barometer: how much closer have we come to fulfilling its grim dystopian vision – or how much further have we mercifully drifted away? Book burning and other assaults on culture may have been more virulent when the sci-fi classic was last served up at Children’s Theatre in 2005, when Taliban desecrations flamed our anger, or as recently as 2015, when ISIS insanity ruled Mosul and Palmyra.
With Kindle and Google Books, the concern nowadays seems more centered on physical books and booksellers, for notwithstanding the proud illiteracy of the toxic Agent Orange 45 – who still knows words, mind you – reading and literature appear safe for now. The battlefront seems to have shifted to information, reporting, and science. In Charlotte, the culture wars played out at local theatres back in the 90s have been upstaged by anti-LGBT initiatives in the state legislature and racial profiling on the streets.
Because of the complex crisscrossing of events in Charlotte and Charlottesville in the past few months, it gets pretty murky when we attempt to draw a sharp parallel between the firefighters that Bradbury’s hero, Guy Montag, breaks away from and the police of today. It was the protestors, after all, who carried the intimidating torches up in Virginia while police meekly looked on.
Forget the Charlottesville hullabaloo, then, if you go to see the Bradbury combustion up at Spirit Square in a crackling Three Bone Theatre production, for the company surely programmed 451 at Duke Energy Theatre between the Charlotte and Charlottesville riots.
Of course, while times inevitably have changed, productions will add another layer of difference, depending on the company and the director. Compared to the Children’s Theatre productions of 1993 and 2005, we get the full Bradbury stage adaptation now. Three Bone’s adds over 40 minutes, clocking in at 2:21, including intermission. The other big changes are the leading men that director Charles LaBorde has chosen.
With Harry Jones Jr. as Montag facing off against Thom Tonetti as Chief Beatty, we have a clash of physical titans that we haven’t seen before, both firefighters looking more like hard-working enforcers. Greater contrasts are also drawn between youth and age, innocence and experience, ignorance and knowledge. Mark Sutton could do many things onstage as Montag, but looming before us as physically – or vocally – intimidating wasn’t one of them. His early ignorance looked comparatively slack-jawed or nebbishy, slightly endearing.
Now we can see Montag as not only ignorant but also devolved and brutish. When Beatty warns that any influx of knowledge or enlightenment gained from reading will instantly register on Jones’s face, we believe it. He and the mass of mankind have evidently regressed so far that taking the first bite of the contents of a book is like beginning all over again – in a biblical or Darwinian sense.
Tonetti can roar nearly as loudly as Jones, and if he certainly isn’t any more rugged as Beatty than Scott Helm was in 2005, he has the advantage of more years to make him seem more experienced, scruffier, more cynical, and more embittered. Helm’s version of the fire chief was cooler, more inscrutable, while Tonetti is a hot boiling mess. He is erudite, filled with forbidden knowledge, and like God in Eden, able to smell the onset of intellect. But ambivalence rages within Beatty, set in his commitment to firefighting yet never able to fully vanquish the notion that he has made the wrong choice.
Written in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 isn’t prescient about women’s advances in the future, but Bradbury was writing about a dystopian America, so we’re likely to give him a pass. LaBorde plants some women among the firefighters, and Bradbury’s main women, though not in the workforce, are interesting and varied. Mildred Montag, Guy’s wife, is the most conventional, unquestioning in her devotion to pills and brainless TV pap. Lisa Hatt as Mildred is mindless and sedated enough to be a likely source of Guy’s smoldering discontent.
Interestingly, there is a lax acceptance by Mildred and her neighbors of Montag’s predilection toward books. They’ll let it slide until Montag rocks the boat.
Near the Montags, a neighbor lady is found to have a vast home library that must be incinerated. Angie Cee gets a fine cameo as Mrs. Hudson, the library lady willing to burn with her beloved books, playing her with a memorable wild-eyed zeal – and just a trace of motherly love. Her martyrdom certainly gives Montag the inescapable notion that there might be something in books worth dying for.
Montag’s discontents at home and on the job make him vulnerable to the probing and teasing of his rebellious misfit neighbor, Clarisse. It’s a role that works well with the raffish delicacy that Stefani Cronley brings to it. Cronley becomes a dear and lively enough mentor to Montag for us to feel some of the same emptiness he feels when she disappears.
Perhaps the finest character Bradbury created in Fahrenheit 451 was the crazed fugitive outlaw, Faber. Somebody needs to register the horror of what has happened in America, and somebody needs to have an inkling about what can still be done. Bill Reilly brings a wild unkempt fervor to Faber, a catlike cunning wrapped into his cowardice and a divine spark twinkling in his despair. Mankind’s survival hangs on a slender thread, and he’s it – unless Montag and others like him can work out as recruits.
Like the Johann Stegmeir design concept for the 2005 Fahrenheit, Ryan Maloney’s set design and Ramsey Lyric’s costumes for Three Bone are not averse to the idea that we have entered a nuclear winter as well as an intellectual one. Other novelists have played with the idea that nuclear catastrophe might bring about reactionary rejection of science and culture. In Bradbury’s futureworld, nobody seems to know what exactly brought us to this, and that’s part of what makes it so sad.