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There’s a reason Albert Camus is better known as a philosopher-novelist than as a playwright: Even the stories he told for the stage—Caligula, anyone?—can be tough theatrical sells.
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As for his novel The Plague, that high-absurdist allegory on the human struggle, you’d think it had the right dramatic stuff: panicked bureaucrats, hero medicos, dastardly black-marketeers, grim priests, all sealed in a city where first the rats and then the citizens are dying by the thousands. But if Scena Theatre’s new stage version is chock-full of incident and visual interest—Otho Eskin’s adaptation strips away most of the musings and clips efficiently enough through Camus’ chronicle of horrors, and the staging by Robert McNamara and Ellen Wilhite does inventive things with movable isolation-chamber boxes of glass and steel—it’s sadly short on both urgency and heart.
That’s partly a matter of choice: It’s a stylized evening, which means performances can seem clinical, intellectual. (I’ve seen more pathos in the face of a kid contemplating a sidewalk-bound ice-cream cone.)
But it’s an odd choice, especially for a story whose chief argument is that bearing up under the unbearable can give shape and meaning to a life. In that world, after all, everything hinges precisely on urgency and heart—on feeling that action, struggle, defiance are essential, even if they’re doomed to fail. Without urgency, without heart, there’s nothing to admire.