Caryl Churchill’s ‘Light Shining in Buckinghamshire’ Feels Dim

Inspired by actual 17th century debates in England, something here gets lost in translation.

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The cast of "Light Shining in Buckinghamshire": Vinie Burrows, Rob Campbell, Matthew Jeffers, Mikeah Ernest Jennings, Gregg Mozgala and Evelyn Spahr. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, now revived Off-Broadway by New York Theatre Workshop, takes its title from a 1648 political pamphlet outlining the sources of economic slavery amid a murky mess of religion and politics. The execution of Charles I in 1649 then left England without a king, and years of oppressive, experimental governance ensued. Churchill takes this historical question as a dramatic challenge: Can we do this human-rule thing without monarchy?

The English Commonwealth (1649-1660) was inspired by the insurgency of such groups as Levellers and Diggers, who sought everything from popular sovereignty to what we would today consider anarchism. At the same time, religious institutions were challenged by such groups as Ranters, who eschewed the authority of organized faith and believed that man had to hear the divine from within.

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Ultimately, it was the existing historical fragments of the 1647 Putney Debates that offered Churchill the raw material, with additional situations imagined by the playwright, through which to craft her work. The debate language can ring righteously: the historical rights of landed privilege versus every Englishman’s right to vote. When balanced with discussions for and against formalized religion, it can seem as though God were standing for election.

It is director Rachel Chavkin’s production concept for his revival, where this production gets a bit murky. Political and religious interests represented in the Putney Debates do lead to broader questions, it’s true. What would our world look like, they debated, if there was no established religious order and no monarchy? The debates unpacked “one man one vote”; there was then a fear, one eerily current, of the uncontrolled mob. The rabble is messy and uncontrolled and different: why would those in power give any of it up? The problem is that these long and very specific debate sections reference historical details without context.

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The stalwart cast of four men and two women take on the 21 male and four female roles that are identifiable in the script; they occupy a delightful range of race, gender, size and physical types. At 89, the petite Vinie Burrows projects better than anyone else on stage though unamplified; even when she is apparently Oliver Cromwell deep into the play, she portrays women and men with equal aplomb. According to his website, Matthew Jeffers has a rare form of dwarfism, and while it is not explicitly a trait of any of the characters that he portrays, it adds unexpected nuance to several scenes. Similarly, Gregg Mozgala lives with cerebral palsy that slightly affects his movements and has no detrimental effects upon the potency of his characters. Rob Campbell presents a charismatic street preacher that speaks to us directly, inspiring instant comparisons with televangelists. Mikéah Ernest Jennings takes on several characters, from noblemen to vagrants, with equal skill. And Evelyn Spahr breaks our hearts as Margaret Brotherton, who is crushed by poverty and banished for the crime of vagrancy and forced to abandon her starving baby.

Evelyn Spahr, Matthew Jeffers, Mikéah Ernest Jennings on the street.

Set and lighting design by Riccardo Hernandez and Isabella Byrd, respectively, are both warm and intentionally abrasive. There are welcoming but plain plank floorboards covering the stage and just a few sticks of furniture being utilized — a chair, a table; disposable bags that a homeless person might cart around. Simple choices ease us into the world of deprivation and transition in the play. Whether it’s commoners or noblemen onstage, the concept is equally spare. At times, the illumination of the stage is full house lights up; at others points there are clear and intense columns of light illuminating the stage or the audience members. The standard is set: we are to be unsettled.

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Chavkin’s production also folds open-captioning into the design, with upstage signage apparent. Roles of otherwise generic nobles or street folk are often uniquely identifiable solely by names that are projected in these captions, creating an unintended creative tension. Does Churchill prefer for these individual characters to be more indeterminate or not? The captioning provides a specificity that the competent but often generic costuming by Toni-Leslie James doesn’t always provide.

The play’s political and religious themes resonate, but this production dampens the details. I fear something in Churchill’s original vision has been lost in translation.

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Martha Steketee
Martha Wade Steketee has worked as a court researcher, policy analyst, editor, theater critic, and dramaturg. Past and present voting member of theater awards committees (Jeff in Chicago, Drama Desk in New York), and dramaturg who reviews scripts for theaters and festivals and collaborates with writers on new works. Member of American Theatre Critics Association and Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, among other organizations. Steketee lives in New York City with an indulgent husband and too many books.