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THEATER REVIEW: “Kingdom City” at La Jolla Playhouse

Arthur Miller didn’t have any use for censorship or the communist-phobic American government in the 1950s, which he makes quite clear in his 1953 classic “The Crucible.” (The House Un-American Activities Committee noticed, and denied him a passport to attend the European opening of the play.)

Playwright Sheri Wilner revisits the censorship issue in “Kingdom City,” but dilutes its impact by trying to examine both sides of the issue. “Kingdom City,” directed by Jackson Gay, plays through Oct. 5 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Potiker Theatre.

Here’s the setup: A married pair of New York Jews move to small-town Missouri – the kind of small town where every conversation ends with “Have a blessed day.”

Miriam (Kate Blumberg), who calls herself a theater director (though she’s yet to direct a play) lands in Kingdom City with writer’s-blocked husband Daniel (Blumberg’s real-life spouse Todd Weeks). She wants time to read and think; he needs inspiration or perhaps a muse to unlock that block.

To pay for their year off, Daniel has landed a one-year job as artist-in-residence at Lancaster College with minimal teaching duties. He hopes this will give him the inspiration he seeks. Miriam is hired to direct the high school drama club’s fall production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”

One day Daniel walks past a half-finished stone wall and can’t resist adding a few stones to it. When the builder, Luke (Ian Littleworth) returns, they strike up a pleasant conversation, even a budding friendship.

Miriam will have a different opinion of Luke when she gets into rehearsal. Luke also serves as youth minister at the local church; his specialty is teaching “purity” classes to keep local teens on the straight and narrow.

Miriam has cast Katie (Cristina Gerla) and Matt (Austyn Myers), two kids who are “courting” (Miriam calls it “hands-free dating”) as John and Elizabeth Proctor, and that passionate kiss at the end of the play will wreak havoc – and set up a showdown that may cancel the play.

There’s another budding actor in the cast – Crystal (Katie Sapper), a noisy whirlwind with the mouth of a truck driver and the subtlety of a steamroller. She thinks she’s a star, but needs a good role to get into Juilliard.

Masks fall, uncomfortable truths are revealed, Miriam and David even have their John and Elizabeth Proctor parallels. The problem is that these characters are difficult to believe, much less like.

Doing best in that regard are the teens. Gerla conveys the confusion and disappointment; Myers the guilt and fear of the part he’s been asked to play.

Sapper is a fine actress, but her character is so extreme and over the top it almost seems like she belongs in another play. And she does something so contrary to what she says she wants that I left scratching my head.

Littleworth has the best part, delivering all the snake-charmer lines with the conviction of a successful evangelist.

Blumberg and Weeks are fine actors asked to play confusing characters. Why is Miriam considered a great director when this is her first effort? Why has Daniel spent seven years not writing that book? Why small-town Missouri?

The basketball-court seating configuration in the Potiker gives a congregational feel but does not solve the sound problem the theater already has. It also distances parts of the audience from each scene of this intimate play.

Wilner apparently means to explore the line between censorship and protecting the children, which always leads to another question: Which ideas are harmful and who gets to decide? “Kingdom City” has its moments but is not totally successful in its endeavor.

The details

“Kingdom City” plays through Oct. 5 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus) in San Diego, California.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.