Book of Job retold as ‘J.B.’ with circus sideshow performance

Last weekend, Cap & Bells performed Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. in the Adams Memorial Theatre. Based on the biblical Book of Job, J.B. follows its general storyline, while placing itself in the setting of a circus. All of the main players are present: Job, (played by Scott Lipman ’18  and alternately referred to as J.B. and Job), his family, God, Satan, messengers of death and messengers of comfort. J.B. is not a man who curses God. When everything that could go wrong does, he maintains his faith, even though he loses almost everything else. As God and Satan rain down tests of faith, J.B. falters, but never stumbles.

J.B. opens with a conversation between two characters who are vendors in the circus. With quick dialogue and careful wordplay, they establish themselves as aspiring actors, discussing who can play what part in the play-within-a-play. Mr. Zuss (Terah Ehigiator ’18) declares himself fit for the role of God, and situates Nickles (Nadiya L. Atkinson ’21) in a role equal and opposite: Satan. Initially using masks, Mr. Zuss and Nickles begin to assume their identities. Nickles bets Mr. Zuss that J.B., a man who attributes his prosperity and luck to his faithfulness to God, will curse God if it is all taken away.

The focus then shifts from Nickles and Mr. Zuss to J.B. and his family at the dinner table, at what appears to be Thanksgiving. J.B. attributes his good fortune to his faith, while his wife Sarah (Molly K. Murphy ’19) seems to be more hesitant. The five children also attest to J.B.’s fortune and faith, and the scene appears wholesome overall – a picture of a man who has everything. Mr. Zuss and Nickles, who are slowly becoming more and more like the characters they are playing, watch it unfold from the background. Nickles/Satan mocks J.B.’s faith, while Mr. Zuss/God urges him to wait.

Each of J.B.’s tests in the first act come in the form of two messengers sent by Satan. Quickly handing them their various outerwear, Satan brushes off God’s concerns, instead sending the messengers to J.B. and Sarah with a different purpose each time. At first, they appear in military outerwear, and tell of the death of David (Sean J. Pasquali ’19), the oldest son. Then, they appear in trench coats, holding a camera and a notepad, to tell of a car accident which killed two of their children. They come as detectives, to tell of the rape and murder of their fourth child. Finally, they appear with a shell-shocked Sarah, who was found under a building which had collapsed after a bomb had gone off. Sarah had been with their last child – now, they were all dead.

While each death is different, the roles of the messengers stay the same. One messenger is much louder, brasher and has an air of confidence, while the other is more torn up and is often shouting, for he has been there and witnessed each death.

J.B.’s reactions become more intense with each death, ranging from simple disbelief to physical pain and boils. His physical deterioration mirrors how he increasingly struggles to thank God for what has happened. This is a true test of faith, for when a person loses five children, how do they continue to believe? Satan asks this question over and over, as he realizes that J.B. is not giving in, and will not curse God. Nickles/Satan’s clothes and hair become increasingly disheveled as the fight continues, seeming to take as much of a toll on them as it does on Job.

The second act finds J.B. speaking with messengers who are supposed to be comforting, while Satan and God continue to look on. Satan comes closer and closer to admitting defeat, while God continues to watch intensely as the messengers bring different theories of comfort to the scene. Satan questions the actual ability of these messengers to comfort – indeed, the dialogue is not assuaging or validating, but rather continues to push J.B., who wonders where his boundaries are.

When the messengers have done as much as they can, Satan and God enter the ring to talk to J.B., and their Satan/Nickles and God/Mr. Zuss identities begin to come apart. J.B. still refuses to curse God, instead continually asking that God explain what has happened. When all havoc has been wreaked, Nickles and Mr. Zuss return to their identities as vendors in the circus, while J.B. and Sarah wonder what it would look like to begin a new life.

Carefully staged by director Rob Hefferon ’18 and well-acted by a cast spanning all class years, J.B. was thought-provoking and emotional. Despite being originally written by MacLeish in 1958, questions raised in the play remain relevant to a modern audience.

Cap & Bells showcased J.B., a tale of a successful American man who endures many disasters and ends up confronting God and Satan. Photo courtesy of Shanti Hossain