Those ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about the precarious balancing act between pursuit of personal fulfillment and responsibility to something greater than one's own self-interest. Among the earliest embodiments of this dichotomy was the tragic heroine Antigone, who sacrificed herself in the belief that higher principle trumped her own survival. In an imaginative makeover, "Jean Anouilh's Antigone" at A Noise Within reaffirms the story's timeless relevance, albeit with cautionary contemporary strings attached.
This impeccably staged riff on Sophocles' classic drama filters plot and characters through a dual modernist lens: Jean Anouilh's 1944 allegorical retelling, penned in the midst of Nazi-occupied France, has been newly translated and adapted by director Robertson Dean.
Pitting moral conviction against political expediency, the play traces the last day in the life of Antigone (Emily James), daughter of Oedipus and hence no stranger to family dysfunction. True to their bloodline, her brothers have recently killed each other in a battle for control of the state.
Attempting to restore unity after this divisive civil war, the newly installed king, Antigone's uncle Creon (Eric Curtis Johnson), has arbitrarily branded one of the brothers a traitor and ordered his corpse left out to rot as an example to would-be rebels. "We're not a terribly tender family, are we?" he notes, in an understatement for the ages.
The brisk clarity in Dean's staging underscores his accessibly updated dialogue throughout. Particularly inspired is the personification of the Chorus in Inger Tudor's narrative recaps and commentary, delivered in ironically breezy direct address that evokes the story's tragic magnitude even as it debunks the theatrical artifice we're watching. In a similar vein, Stephen Weingartner's palace guard engages with spot-on comic timing that belies the weight of his sinister actions — after all, he's only following orders.
That level of clarity is sustained in capable performances from the entire cast. When Antigone defies Creon's edict to ensure her brother's proper burial, James' portrayal embodies steely determination, self-awareness of the consequences for honoring family obligation above the rule of law, and passion for the life she's giving up. However, there's a one-note fanaticism in her Antigone that limits the character's moral superiority, perhaps more than intended.
In contrast, Johnson's standout turn as Creon offers so many levels of nuance and subtle thinking that he often makes the more convincing argument. There's certainly greater complexity in this adaptation than the thinly veiled parable of resistance to Nazi collaboration in Anouilh's text. Nevertheless, the questions raised by this compelling morality tale are particularly well-suited to a time when the concept of self-sacrifice has been replaced by the selfie.
"Jean Anouilh's Antigone," A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Runs in repertory, see website for schedule. Ends Nov. 20. $44-$62. (626) 356-3100, Ext. 1, or www.anoisewithin.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.