The first serious live play I ever saw, in the spring of 1969, was a high school production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, based on the 5th century BC tragedy by Sophocles. It tore me out of the frame, the passions of the young actors more than compensating for lack of craft. Anouilh’s Antigone had premiered in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1944, and it also resonated powerfully in Vietnam-era America in the 1960s, when many were called by a higher moral law to defy the State. In fact, it was the first play presented in NC State’s Thompson Theatre, 50 years ago. Now the Thompson is called University Theatre, and to mark its 50th anniversary, UT is presenting another version of the Antigone story – one commissioned from the extraordinary poet Seamus Heaney by the great Abbey Theatre of Dublin to commemorate its 100th anniversary in 2004.

Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes retells the terrible story of the children of Oedipus, as you might expect, in poetic language that ravishes, whiplashes, and bludgeons the listener. And as it has for 25 centuries, Sophocles’ tale calls to the passionate hearts of young actors who have just begun to comprehend the ambiguity of justice, even if they are certain as to what is right. The all-undergraduate cast does a solid job, sometimes rising to true theatrical power, despite heavy-handed direction by Mia Self. She eschews subtlety, nuance, and variable pacing in favor of a fierce declamatory approach that confuses, as it makes each line seem as important as every other, and robs the crucial moments of their strength.

Nonetheless, the story remains vivid and awful. It continues to define “dilemma” and “moral courage.” Antigone’s two brothers have died in a day, one fighting for the victor and the other for the loser. Victorious Thebes buries Eteocles with full rites and honors; the new king of Thebes, Creon, declares that the other brother, Polyneices, was a traitor and will not be buried. Moreover, anyone who tries to fulfill the rites required by custom and the gods will also die. Antigone has previously promised Polyneices that she will bury his body (he’s sure he will die in his attempt to conquer Thebes), and no edict from the king her uncle will prevent her from keeping her word. If her sister Ismene will not help her bury their brother, which she won’t, Antigone will stand alone, and die in honor.

Sophomore chemical engineering major Natalie Sherwood gave a ferocious performance as Antigone, and was particularly affecting in the second act. Her “…where will I find another brother?” speech had me stifling sobs. As her dictatorial uncle Creon, whose own tragedies strike before the end, senior political science major Philipp Lindemann also gave a standout performance. He’s also a theatre minor, and has more acting skills than some of the less experienced students. He used posture, small gestures, and expressions to excellent effect, and spoke beautifully. Nick Tran (nuclear engineering and economics; minors in international studies and mathematics) did a fine job with the role of Haemon, Creon’s son who was engaged to Antigone.

The speech by blind soothsayer Tiresias, warning Creon against killing Antigone, was very well handled by sophomore Areon Mobasher. Mobasher also appears as part of the Chorus – as an embedded videographer, accompanied by a newsgirl with a microphone (the same actor plays Tiresias’ assistant, who never speaks). This double casting was quite piquant, and as much as anything pointed up the references to President George W. Bush inserted in the script by Heaney. The Chorus needed a little more direction and to take some deep breaths, but when they all spoke Heaney’s lines in unison, with feeling, they were quite effective. They were particularly strong in the “Glorious Sun” praisesong, almost chanting while digging themselves out of the rubble of the final battle that occurred just before the play begins. I also enjoyed Michael Hubbard’s (senior, computer science and creative writing) Guard, who gave wry overtones to his speeches, speeches that seemed designed to remind us that the Irish have been long familiar with the conflict between duty to the State and duty to family and the gods.

The set – a grim high palace pocked and partially destroyed, with wings of scaffolding and plastic – works very well. Designed by Jayme Mellema, it evokes both the ancient and the recent, with posters of the missing as after 9/11, and a little candlelit memorial table. The lighting by Joshua A. Reaves is apt and well-timed, from the grey, dusty post-battle gloom, to the glaring spotlights and flaring candles, to the broken lightning of gods displeased.

Thompson Theatre – the University Theatre of today – has always been student-centered, non-professional. It was one of the first toeholds of the humanities at NC State, and everyone involved should be proud at how far it has come in 50 years. Now a key component of ARTS NC STATE, UT helps make fuller, rounder humans of the students who plunge in, and with shows like The Burial at Thebes, it hews to the high ground, demonstrating clearly that art is not necessarily synonymous with entertainment, and that sometimes there are no easy answers when one comes to the test.

The old lessons in moral philosophy, made anew, continue through Sunday, April 19. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.