THE PROPHET OF BISHOP HILL, Chicago Dramatists. If you want to experience the power of theatrical hokum, go see David Rush’s The Prophet of Bishop Hill. With a lot of stagy courtroom dramatics and folksy historical reenactments, the play is about as hokey as can be. But Rush proves himself a master showman, creating an engrossing, morally challenging narrative in a form any community theater could handle.
This historical drama follows iconoclastic Swedish preacher Eric Janson, who in 1846 brought 1,200 of his persecuted followers across the Atlantic to the western Illinois wilderness, where they built a “communal utopia” and Janson preached that the key to salvation was to become “perfect” like him. Eventually a shady salesman named John Root infiltrated the colony, married Janson’s cousin, and assassinated the prophet. Rush tells the story in a bold, straightforward manner, using Root’s murder trial as a framing device and casting the audience as jury: each scene of Janson’s descent into near madness must be weighed against Root’s claim of self-defense. Rush’s greatest achievement is the character of Janson, a tortured visionary as monstrous as he is heroic. Richard Marlatt turns in a towering performance, taking the preacher to the heights of arrogant zealotry without sacrificing the naivete that makes the man more pitiable than depraved.
Given its theatrical stodginess, The Prophet of Bishop Hill may seem 30 years out of date. But sometimes all you need in the theater is a great story well told.