When Willard Manus decided to adapt Daniel Defoe’s book into a stage play, little did he realize how difficult but also illuminating the task would become. How to take Defoe’s meandering and often repetitive story and make it into a meaningful stage production? Defoe’s novel was published in 1722 from accounts he reportedly heard and probably researched about “The Great Plague” which swooped through London in 1665 – when Defoe was only five years old. Is Defoe’s work fiction or non-fiction? After all, the “journal writer,” identified only as H.F., has the same initials as Defoe’s uncle Henry Foe, who lived in East London during the pandemic. The question of authenticity has troubled critics since the book’s publication. In fact, some critics have deemed the account imaginative fiction or perhaps a historical novel, while Defoe’s biographer observed that it was almost impossible to separate factual accounts from fabricated details contained in the pages, so smooth was the transition. In 2021, the Write Act Repertory tackles A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR.
“The Great Plague” – apparently what we now term the bubonic plague – struck London in 1664 and lasted over a year, eventually killing over half of the city’s population. People are dying – or fleeing London – in droves. However, one shop owner/businessman decides to stay and ride out the crisis. H.F. has always been interested in history and is a keen observer of the details surrounding him. This might be the perfect time to hone his skills while living right in the middle of the unfolding catastrophe. But even during the months when the mysterious killer disease held sway, life goes on. H.F. will lose his best friend, neighbors, and acquaintances – and unexpectedly find love – during the year of the devastating plague.
A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR was written as a radio play with requisite signage and old-time microphones. As playwright Manus opined, “It’s a big cast, and it would be hard to get all the changing sets to work…doing it as a radio play makes it possible for changes to happen immediately and easily…you don’t have to worry about staging, sets, or costumes…and the same actors can play multiple roles.” This style of production might not appeal to some audiences but generally proved effective for this production. Various sounds including music coming from speakers set the scene, punctuated the lines, and offered some authenticity to the story. The cast of five (two females and three males) were called upon to cover the full range of characters. Director Daniel E. Keough kept the pace moving as the play unfolded. Special kudos to the female actors (Hettie Lynne Hurtes and Gale Madyun), who screamed, cried, and convincingly ran the gamut of emotions in this tale of tragedy.
What was most chilling, however, about the production were the obvious parallels between a plague in 1665 and a pandemic in 2020. From wooden carts overflowing with the dead to refrigerated trucks taking corpses to their final destination – from scammers selling “cures” which probably worked as well as ivermectin did today – from the disorganized government response and from the pain of losing loved ones during both pandemics – all of these will strike home with audiences as COVID-19 lingers across the globe. To insure everyone’s safety, all current pandemic guidelines are observed, including proof of vaccination and the wearing of masks during the show.
THE JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR runs through December 19, 2021, with performances at 8 p.m. on Saturdays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays. The Brickhouse Theatre is located at 10950 Peach Grove Street, North Hollywood, CA 91601. Tickets are $15 if purchased online and $20 cash at the door. For information and reservations, call 800-838-3006 or go online.