There are so many reasons not to revive Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. It’s nearly three hours long, and it’s mostly talk. It parses the finer points and factionalisms of the English Civil War of the 1640s, and its protagonists are a gaggle of starving, sweaty religious anarchists who don’t even coalesce as a movement until Act II.
Count me grateful that neither New York Theatre Workshop nor director Rachel Chavkin thought any of this was a problem. Chavkin’s production, running through June 3, isn’t just a smart staging of a rarely performed play. It’s an argument for theater as a place to think out loud, find common cause with people very unlike ourselves, and take the long view of historical change. Light Shining is the story of agrarian laborers whose hopes for a more equitable society soared when Oliver Cromwell’s army deposed King Charles I. This was the era of the enclosing of the commons, the time when the Protestant belief that worshippers could commune directly with God — no church authorities needed — was fresh, and shocking. Millennialist groups like the Diggers, Levellers, and Ranters seized the moment, linking visions for communal farming and living with sexual freedom and apocalyptically tinged religious epiphany.
Churchill follows a cross-section of England’s agrarian classes through this upheaval, revealing how individuals’ consciousness were raised by circumstance and by each other. A woman abandons a baby she cannot feed. A young man is recruited to fight against the king in exchange for a musket and a few pence a day. A future Ranter staggers in awe at the revelation that God is everywhere, and sin in the mind of the beholder. The excellent ensemble cast — Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Vinie Burrows, Evelyn Spahr, Rob Campbell, Matthew Jeffers, and Gregg Mozgala — makes each of these episodes emotional, and sharply detailed.
Even performed well, Light Shining could have been merely a tale of misery. The new government succumbs to the pressures of inertia, bureaucracy, and landed wealth. The commons remain off-limits, poverty grows, and the monarchy returns. But this play isn’t about wallowing in gloom, even if Isabella Byrd’s lighting, on Riccardo Hernández’s wood-plank set, creates an appropriately musty, candlelit world, with daylight flooding through the second act. It’s about that moment in most revolutions before one form of structural oppression gives way to another — that juncture when a different society is briefly glimpsed. Yes, Light Shining has boring parts, intentionally so. It draws on documentary material and includes a reenactment of the Putney Debates, when the new government hashed out constitutional policy, deciding whether non-landholders (read: poor people) would have the vote. The scene is exhausting, but the stakes are huge, a reminder that big change so often comes through painstaking deliberation, not shock and awe. (Plus, you do not want to miss powerhouse Vinie Burrows as Oliver Cromwell.)
Chavkin’s production nods to the Brechtian influence that runs through Churchill’s work, and is especially palpable here. A closed-captioning system displays scene titles, and there are more than a couple of “silent screams” in the tradition of the great Helene Weigel (the original Mother Courage, among other roles). Modern touches emerge as the play goes on: a pair of Converse, a T-shirt with a raised fist, a six-pack of IPAs. With or without these flourishes, though, this is a play, and a production, that’s welcome now. Light Shining demonstrates just how difficult it is to turn revolutionary anger into functional governance, and it allows for reflection on more recent disruptive moments — from the Sixties on through to Occupy — without sinking into pessimistic despair. You might even leave the theater wanting to do some digging or ranting yourself.