Caryl Churchill is a witty, often brilliant playwright who is sometimes ahead of the curve on intriguing issues. Her plays delved into gender fluidity, female empowerment, and environmental crisis long before those themes made the covers of popular magazines. It is therefore particularly frustrating that New York Theater Workshop reached into the back of Churchill’s vault to remount Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a piece that examines the failures of both church and state during the English Civil War.
The scant story intertwines the lives of a variety of English citizens during the mid 1600. Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians imprisoned King Charles I, who is still supported by Royalists. Strict Puritanism has enveloped the Church, though there are whiffs of free consciousness and individualism in the air. Most of the action takes place off-stage leaving the bulk of the dialogue as passive conversation and exposition. A chunk of the play reenacts the Putney Debates: an attempt to rework the British constitution. Some historical knowledge is helpful for following all the verbiage and a brief outline is provided in an addendum to the show’s program.
As staged by the often whimsical Rachel Chavkin and her creative team, this production is particularly rough going. She employs what has become her trademark of having the actors in the aisles, but mostly keeps them arguing from chairs. The lack of physical interaction keeps the pace maddeningly slow. The first act is made almost literally airless by scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez’s decision to lower the ceiling. Isabella Byrd’s lighting includes faux candlelight for the shadowy Act I and florescence for Act II when illumination seems more in reach. The soundscape designed by Mikaal Sulaiman is thick and sometimes distorted. The wardrobe designed by Toni-Leslie James starts off mildly period, then moves to jeans and T-shirts for Act II. This section also includes anachronistic use of an iPhone, diet soda, and plastic bags. These may all be nods to today’s struggles with class and power, but the metaphors aren’t clear enough and the props by Noah Mease feel more like empty gestures.
The make up of the cast is as broad and eclectic as possible. While this is fitting for the work, they are not equally strong performers. Mikéah Ernest Jennings is the standout, blessed with the most compelling through-line from household servant to preacher serving mankind. It is easy enough to see Matthew Jeffers’ magnetism as well as his dwarfism, though in stretches he speaks too swiftly and softly. Seasoned actress and activist Vinie Burrows really gets the play going, speaking up from the audience to interrupt a particularly paternalistic sermon. Evelyn Spahr is also given occasions to show her range, with opportunities to sing as sweetly as a nightingale and mewl Eliza Doolittle style. But performers Rob Campbell and Gregg Mozgala mostly get lost in waves of sameness. At several points the audience relies on the projected captions to tell them which of their characters is speaking.
Dour, preachy and repetitive, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire was an intriguing experiment written before Caryl Churchill found her true voice and rhythm. While the challenges of the English Civil War may have been compelling in the mid 1970s with its parallel rise of disenfranchised young people, the lines to the relatable aren’t clearly drawn. It is also difficult to become emotionally invested in any of these characters. There is insufficient differentiation between their roles and there is no one we get to know well. Though not completely lacking artistry, at 2 hours and 40 minutes this production is a test for even the loyalest of Churchill’s fans. The play continues through June 3 at New York Theater Workshop. Visit https://www.nytw.org/show/light-shining-buckinghamshire/ for tickets and information.