If you, like a lot of people, read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 once, in high school, you might remember it sketchily as a dystopian science fiction novel about a future where firemen burn books so as to keep the populace from thinking the kind of complex thoughts that might upset the social order. The moral: don’t burn books.
That’s essentially correct, but there’s much more to the book than that, and six decades after its publication, Bradbury’s classic has new resonance; it remains disturbing, but not exclusively along the lines its author might have anticipated.
Theatre in the Round is revisiting the story with a new production of Bradbury’s own theatrical adaptation from the 1970s. Influenced by François Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation, Bradbury made some significant changes in adapting his 1953 novel for the stage — so even if you’re familiar with the novel, you might be surprised by some of the developments in the play.
Still, the basic plot and themes are there, with fire chief Beatty (Rod Kleiss) being given much of the responsibility for outlining the story’s context in a series of dramatic monologues delivered primarily to the shocked audience of Montag (Bill Williamson), a fireman who starts to question his destructive job and repressive society. Other key characters include Montag’s wife Mildred (Aidan Jhane Gallivan), an idealistic young girl named Clarisse (Dani Pazurek), and the cowering intellectual Faber (Paul Brissett).
It’s no mean feat to create a violent future society on Theatre in the Round’s compact stage, but director Linda S. Paulsen has used her resources skillfully, with the help of set designer Dietrich Poppen — who makes good use of elevated nooks for Faber’s attic and a surprising feature of Beatty’s home — and sound/projection designer Matthew Vichlach, who creates an immersive (if perhaps overly eclectic) future soundscape.
With the parameters of their world thus defined, Paulsen’s cast bring focus and persistent unease to what Paulsen, in a program note, calls “a cautionary tale.” Kleiss has the showiest role, and he tackles it with such maniacal glee that you can almost smell the brimstone. Gallivan and Pazurek, both well-cast, add dimension to the tale — which is needed since Williamson remains a cipher at its center, often seeming flustered rather than tortured.
To its credit, the show leaves you with a lot to chew on. Self-censorship is one of the story’s central concerns: characters like Mildred are portrayed as all too happy to limit their own intellectual frontiers for the sake of the status quo. Beatty explains that what would later be known as political correctness helped to inspire the book-burnings — any given book is bound to offend someone, so why not eliminate all of them?
That resonates with current debates about campus speech, but not always in a way that’s flattering to Bradbury. In a play where the female characters are strongly split along the virgin/media-whore dichotomy and dead white male authors are lionized as the Thinkers of Great Thoughts, Bradbury doesn’t necessarily earn our trust as the arbiter of whose voices, through what means, deserve to be amplified.
The idea that books are synonymous with worthy ideas, while television is synonymous with brain-melting trash, is one that’s as dated as the play’s gender stereotypes. Though the faux-interactivity of Mildred’s preferred entertainment (you’re encouraged to talk, but no one really listens) may seem prescient in the era when every show from The Bachelor to the nightly news comes with its own hashtag, it’s also true that the Internet has become a space for crucial conversations, while physical books have become, in many cases, literally worthless.
Fahrenheit 451 still has an important message, but it takes more and more digging to get to it. The best stories don’t just fill our minds — they spark conversations. That remains true of this particular story, and Theatre in the Round is performing a valuable service by kindling that spark anew.