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Drama Creates Lens for Student Discussion

Henry Thoreau (Oliver Shaw ’18) shared his new-found passion for Transcendentalism with his brother John (Rishi Madnani ’19). (Photo by Jim Inverso)

This year’s fall theater performance was The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, a 1969 play about Henry David Thoreau who was jailed overnight for refusing to pay a poll tax. He believed that the money would be used to support the Mexican-American War that he opposed. The play was selected by Director Mo West to stimulate provocative and relevant conversations among students.

English department faculty member Melaina Young ’93 said the play hit the mark. “I loved the show and I was particularly interested in how Mo and the Theater Department made Thoreau’s ideas relevant and accessible to our modern world. I’m always amazed at how talented our student actors are and I think they really brought these roles to life.”

Sarah Mastrocola ’19 read for the show and said the experience gave her a new perspective. “Learning about transcendentalist beliefs while working in the play introduced me to a new way of viewing life and what is really important in it,” Sarah said. Sarah’s role was Ellen Sewell, a new student in the Thoreau outdoor classroom.

One scene, which she referred to as the nightmare ballet, was particularly moving for Sarah. “I hope the fact that it was grotesque and so different from the rest of the play made it linger in the audience’s minds even after they left the theater,” she said. “The scene contained an important message about the consequences of going along with the majority and not speaking out.”

The show told the story through a series of flash backs, rather than through linear progression. It starred Oliver Shaw ’18 as Henry Thoreau, Elliot Landor ’18 as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Smith ’18 as Lydian Emerson (his wife), Kat Stein ’18 as Henry’s mother, and Rishi Madnani ’19 as John Thoreau, Henry’s older brother.

Oliver said his role in the show gave him greater understanding of Thoreau as a person. “Because it takes place earlier in his life, the show sheds light on the human characteristics of Thoreau that led to his thoughtful writing.”

Other cast members were Zach Sharma ’18, William Street ’18, Tucker Ballantyne ’18, Kelly Banfield ’20, Penzi Hill ’20, Julia Carrigan ’20, Abby Byrtus ’20, Maggie Popkin ’20, Eric Ruziskey ’20, and Thomas Zeng ’19. The members of the stage crew were Chris Brodbeck ’18, Iain Lowrie ’19, and Zachary Wander ’18.

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