Sheri Wilner’s Kingdom City is as much an homage to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as it is a penetrating comment on moral repression and censorship. The twist -- that the actors portraying the characters in a production of a play become their characters and live out that play in real life -- is a much-employed narrative device. But the metamorphosis sneaks up on you in Wilner’s smartly written play, which is getting its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse under the direction of Jackson Gay. When the holy roller teens of Kingdom City, Missouri come face to face with their ultra-liberal director and with The Crucible itself, they are eventually reborn, and not in the born-again sense. They are freed from the heavy hammer of judgment and Scripture.
Katie Blumberg, as the initially reluctant director, Miriam, and Todd Weeks (Blumberg’s actual spouse) as Miriam’s writer’s-blocked husband, Daniel, seem at first cookie-cutter New York intellectuals. Their characters are humanized by their encounters with the kids (well played by Cristina Gerla, Austyn Myers and Katie Sapper), and by the second act, Miriam’s abrasiveness is diminished and her caring about the desperate teens becomes believable and affecting. All the while – and here’s where Wilner’s craftsmanship shines – flashes of The Crucible illuminate the story.
For Kingdom City, the Playhouse’s Potiker theater is configured with seats on both sides and the action in the middle. While this makes it more difficult to see, it does give the setting a congregational feel and, more important, brings the actors closer. Amen to that.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.