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A provocative 'Kingdom City' at La Jolla Playhouse

A provocative 'Kingdom City' at La Jolla Playhouse
Katie Sapper, left, portrays drama student Crystal, and Kate Blumberg is Miriam in the La Jolla Playhouse's production of "Kingdom City" by Sheri Wilner. (Jim Carmody)

There is one week remaining to catch "Kingdom City" at La Jolla Playhouse, and anyone who values the power of theater to stimulate meaningful dialogue about significant issues dare not miss it.

In its striking intensity and genuinely thoughtful content, playwright Sheri Wilner's seriocomic study of the contradictions and ramifications of censorship, though still gelling, is as potentially major a new American play as we've seen since Richard Greenberg took on homophobia and racism in "Take Me Out."

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Drawing from a real-life incident that occurred in Fulton, Mo., in 2006, Wilner wastes no time in establishing transplanted New Yorkers Miriam (Kate Blumberg) and Daniel (Todd Weeks) as fishes out of water in the title Missouri hamlet.

She is a theater director, he a fiction writer, and his college teaching job in another town coupled with the small-town limitations of Kingdom City leave Miriam more than a little unmoored, even as she is offered a gig as temporary drama club advisor at the local high school.

While Daniel, who has his own stalled-artist issues, thinks it a boon, Miriam isn't so sure that a New York Jew and the "corn-fed goyim" are copasetic. Although this initial exchange is a bit exposition-heavy, it certainly drop-kicks us into the main event.

Miriam has her eye on staging something new, relevant, mind-expanding. What she hasn't counted on is the conservative religious nature of the town, as represented by three very different students.

Shy, awkward Katie (Cristina Gerla) is introduced in a debate with erstwhile friend Crystal (Katie Sapper) over wearing her cross to the impending audition.

"No real actor is religious," asserts Crystal, whose foul-mouthed, ambitious diffidence masks more tangled emotions. Yet Katie, whose home life involves an absent mother and over-protective father, isn't so sure; the cross was a present from Matt (Austyn Myers), with whom she is taking purity classes and whose own concealed conflicts are shaped in dramaturgic contours yet rooted in recognizable teenage issues.

That, as it turns out, is part of the horns of the dilemma. Because after seminarian-turned-stone mason Luke (Ian Littleworth), whom Daniel unexpectedly befriends, reads "The Crucible," Miriam's reluctant selection from the principal's list of acceptable plays, his youth pastor's hackles raise at the adultery that supplies Arthur Miller's classic with its motor.

What follows is a gradual fraying of more than one uneasy relationship, and neither the irony of censoring this particular classroom staple nor the two-sides-to-every-argument aspects are lost on Wilner.

She has a gift for weighted zingers, daring to examine her subject as a comedy-drama. Moreover, though her characters may have archetypal contours, every one of them turns out to be more multivalent than their surfaces might suggest.

And if some back stories and the narrative structure flirt with melodrama by Act 2, Wilner's overall intent and use of quotes and plot elements from not only "The Crucible" but "Saint Joan," "Miss Julie" and "Macbeth" is extremely well-judged, with the climactic purity ceremony and heart-tugging final scene quietly fulfilling.

Director Jackson Gay provides a brilliant environmental staging. Placing the audience on either side of the playing area, which designer Robert Brill treats as a kind of arena of the mind, Gay's smooth delineation of the stakes and undercurrents at work here inevitably pulls us into the fray, aided by some fine designers -- most notably Paul Whitaker's ambient lighting -- and a seamlessly committed cast.

Real-life married pair Blumberg and Weeks are estimable and convincing as Miriam and Daniel, here wry, there raw, just right. Littleworth's jovial beneficence is similarly apt as the voice of Christian morality, and all three young actors are superb.

Myers' development from his precocious Eugene in the Old Globe's "Brighton Beach Memoirs" is most gratifying, deeply moving at his character's meltdown. Gerla has a stillness and emotional quality that recalls the young Lili Taylor, and Sapper, in what is the play's trickiest role, is marvelously dualistic, unpredictable and vivid.

That also applies to "Kingdom City." At one key point late in the game, Luke rails against the argument about "Crucible," that defenders always say "This is a very important play." Indeed, and so is this remarkable latter-day allegory.

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"Kingdom City," La Jolla Playhouse's Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (UCSD campus), La Jolla. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $15 and up. (858) 550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.org. Running time:  2 hours, 15 minutes.

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