"Fahrenheit 451" is Ray Bradbury's cautionary tale about a futuristic society that has given up on individual thought. Books are banned as villainous and, along with scholars and intellectuals, are as endangered as the so-called witches of 17th-century Salem. The general population is overrun by a steady stream of mind-numbing media output, guaranteed to clog the brain without jogging an original thought.
In the production by Prime Stage at the New Hazlett Theater, a scorched urban environment with smoky geysers (post-apocalyptic or post-hurricane come to mind) is home to Guy and Mildred Montag and their neighbors, a whimsical teen named Clarisse and her professorial grandfather.
Montag is a reluctant Fireman, one of the squads of enforcers who burn books. He finds himself attracted to Clarisse's blithe spirit and questioning his profession, while his literature-spouting boss, Captain Beatty, tries to knock some sense into him. A woman who chooses to go up in flames with her books pushes Montag even further to the edge, and reading — not just reading, but understanding — becomes a dangerous goal.
As Montag, Pitt graduate Justin Patrick Mohr projects a growing frustration and defiance that is shared by the audience as he watches his suicidal wife, played by Daina Michelle Griffith, cling to shallowness. The talented Ms. Griffith makes her Prime Stage debut while being reunited with Justin Fortunato, her director on Carrnivale's "Next to Normal."
Montag can find no comfort at home and at work, Captain Beatty dangles the possibilities of literary knowledge, then decries it's contradictions. In an overlong Act 1 speech, preachy Beatty — played by a game Monteze Freeland, a familiar and welcome presence on Pittsburgh stages — shows he can quote freely from the likes of Shakespeare and the Bible but also imparts the perils of learning: "A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it," he says.
Too late. Montag has been inspired by his encounters with dreamy Clarisse (Magan Dee Yantko, who builds on a bright collaboration with Fortunato, begun with "Next to Normal"). When Clarisse disappears, he enlists her grandfather (Ken Lutz as Faber) to build on his knowledge, putting them both in harm's way of a Mechanical Hound, a deadly machine of Montag's own devising.
The sparse audience on Sunday (the play ran into the first quarter of the Steelers-Giants game) was updated on the time by a generic female voice, which periodically informed us it was 14.7 or 10.3 minutes to the start of "Fahrenheit 451." It played on the notion that Big Brother, or Sister, was not only watching but parsing out information in a calculated way.
The production begins with playful Clarisse, in a baby-doll dress, flanked by two Firemen. She begins to read and is then shocked into a loud scream when her book bursts into flame. These Firemen who cause fires rather than fight them are dressed in bright yellow protective gear like that worn by the heroic firefighters of today (below, uniformed Derek Bingham and Ryan Kearney with Tracey D. Turner) — a thought-provoking way of turning the tables and a stark contrast to the 1966 Francois Truffaut movie of "Fahrenheit 451," in which Firemen were clad all in black and with metal helmets resembling those worn by the Germans in World War I.
Prime Stage's "Farenheit 451" gets bogged down when it gets talky, particularly in heavy-message speeches by Beatty and Faber. It gets fiery when we find ourselves in Montag's shoes, sharing his agitation, and never more so than in a scene in which Mildred and friends preen for an interactive television show. They stare spellbound at a screen (unseen by us) as a disembodied voice asks a "Mildred" and "Alice" and "Helen" to reveal truths about themselves. It could be any Mildred or Alice or Helen, yet they see themselves as stars of the show.
Sports and it's statistics are safe havens for the mind, Beatty says, but entertainment has to be carefully monitored. No more theaters where people leave talking about a particular playwright's particular provocation; better to stay on equal footing with the other Mildreds and Alices and Helens.
The shadowy light and bleak set by J.R. Shaw and Johnmichael Bohach, respectively, fill the New Hazlett's thrust stage with an appropriate sense of dread. Books and ripped pages make timely appearances, sometimes coddled and other times manhandled. There's tragedy in their destruction; relief whenever a sense of permanence is restored.
Mr. Fortunato has said that he sees Mr. Bradbury's message as being not so much about the burning of books and government censorship but about distraction — mass media, technology, drugs, etc. — vs. happiness.
In his program notes, the director writes, "I hope you leave this production wanting to read a book. Go for a night walk. Write a letter. ... Listen to a song. Listen to a friend. Listen to the wind. Just listen."
Whether your idea of happiness is curling up with a good book or you thrive on reality TV shows and headline news, or a combination of all of the above, "Fahrenheit 451" has a message for you. The most important one might be to reason out that message for yourself, then discuss it with a friend.
"Fahrenheit 451" continues at the New Hazlett Theater, North Side, through Nov. 11; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $20-$30; $10-$25 for students with ID and 60 and over, depending on day; primestage.com, showclix.com or 1-888-718-4253.