J.B., Retro Theatre, at National Pastime Theater. According to Retro Theatre's press materials, Archibald MacLeish's verse-drama retelling of the Book of Job has not been produced in Chicago in "over 20 years." I'm not surprised. I can't think of many actors in town with the diction and sensitivity to language necessary to bring MacLeish's carefully crafted lines to life. Or many directors, now that Michael Barto is gone, who trust words enough to let them stand front and center.
Judging by Retro's slow, uneven production, director Blake Cadkin doesn't have a clue how to make MacLeish's poetry seem more than just talk, talk, talk. Otherwise he wouldn't have filled his show with performers like B.F. Helman, who plays Zuss (MacLeish's name for Yahweh): he reads every line in the stiff drone of a particularly uninspired minister. And Thomas Hietter as Nickels (aka Satan) compensates for Helman's drone by playing Lucifer as an unctuous ham. Nor would he have found an actor with the limited vocal range of John O'Meara to play MacLeish's white-collar Job, J.B.; O'Meara comes alive only near the end of the play, when he's in extreme anguish.
But it's a little unfair to single out actors for criticism in a show with as many indifferent performances as this one. Of the 12 cast members, only the one playing J.B.'s wife (Gabrielle Brite) and, to a lesser extent, the three playing his daughters (Cathy Bethurem, Amie Farrell, and Nikki Whitfield) successfully negotiate this difficult script.