It's tough to outrun a persistent idea.
For the socialist revolutionaries of Albert Camus' "The Just," the idea involves the scourge of unrepentant terrorism.
For Chautauqua Theatre Company co-director Ethan McSweeny, his somewhat less dangerous pursuit was to mount a seldom-performed play replete with deep philosophical inquiries and practically devoid of humor. But in CTC's production of "The Just," fueled by Anthony Clarvoe's new translation, that risk has largely paid off.
The production is briskly paced and nearly always engrossing. Despite a curiously distracting performance from one of the show's leads, the play manages to charge ahead on the power of its modern resonance and the strength of Camus' spare and simple dialogue.
As the effects of terrorism increasingly occupy our daily lives, whether in the papers or on the streets themselves, our best theater will confront those effects in increasingly challenging and complex ways. And "The Just," a play based on the true story of a group of socialist revolutionaries in 1905 Moscow, presents the perfect opportunity to place our modern incarnation of terrorism into a long and practically unbroken line of ideological extremism from time immemorial.
As the play opens, we see a spare room with a group of nicely dressed Russian citizens acting perfectly urbane except for one fact. They are planning out, in detail, the assassination of the czar's uncle, the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. They plot and plod, engaging in circular arguments about the use of force and their own visions of a far-off land free of murder and an Earth "covered with the innocent."
Camus lends the Russian terrorists not just a tinge of humanity, but boatloads of the stuff. Peering into their conflicted heads is like glimpsing into war itself, and that view is somehow made at once more repulsive and more engrossing by the characters' genuine and irrepressible pathos.
As Yanek, the central character and the play's closest semblance of a hero, conservatory member Bryce Pinkham gives a heart-wrenching performance. This poet-turned-terrorist has deep and complex reservations about his new calling, and his hesitance to carry out some dastardly objectives calls up the central question of the play: To what end can murder be justified for the love of an idea?
For the other terrorists, there are different questions. But each seems trapped in the crawl space between idealism and ideology, not knowing where their utopian visions end and where reality begins.
Clarvoe's translation, praised by director McSweeny for subduing the strange sentimentality of the standard English version, nonetheless does nothing to tone down the ponderous melodramatic pontifications of its central female character. Chautauqua conservatory member Meg Fee's underwhelming performance as Dora has the opposite of Camus' intended effect of revelatory humanization.
In the final two acts, fine performances from CTC guest artists Andrew Borba (as police commissioner Skoratov), Ellen McLaughlin (as the Grand Duke's widow) and a hilarious bit part by John Seidman (as the prisoner Foka) buoy up the cast considerably.
In the end, despite a couple of drawbacks from the cast and script itself, "The Just" is a succinct and effective contemplation on the conflicting forces of ideology.
Drama presented through Sunday by Chautauqua Theater Company in Historic Bratton Theater, Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua.
For more information, call 357-6250 or visit www.ciweb.org.