Conscience

George Street Theatre, Conscience

On stage at George Street Playhouse is the world premiere of Tony award-winning playwright Joe DiPietro’s play Conscience—a timely examination of the political risks and imperative for elected leaders to stand up to a demagogic bully. The production, expertly directed by George Street’s artistic director David Saint, opened March 6 and runs through March 29.

DiPietro focuses his historical drama tightly on four people: Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith (played by Tony-winner Harriet Harris) and her aide William Lewis, Jr. (Mark Junek), on one side, and Senate Republican Joseph McCarthy (Lee Sellars) and his researcher—and later wife—Jean Kerr (Cathryn Wake), on the other.

As the drama begins, Smith—the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate—is a political whirlwind. McCarthy, elected in 1946, clearly doesn’t take his Senatorial duties nearly as seriously as he does his flask. Their two aides effectively and efficiently stake out the opposing political positions. You dread the vicious confrontation to come, when she remarks on McCarthy’s two essential qualities: “the ability to hate and the skill to communicate it as virtue.”

McCarthy’s virulent anti-Communism crusade begins when, before a group of Republican women in Wheeling, West Virginia, he waves a piece of paper that he claims contains the names of 205 Communists who work in the U.S. State Department. Fueled by alcohol and drunk on power, he rides high for the next few years, making wild accusations about Communists in government that stoke public fear.

By 1950, the appalled Smith is the only Senator brave enough to take him on. She believes her colleagues will support the Declaration of Conscience she delivers on the Senate floor. But only six senators sign on, and later disavow it. The declaration makes McCarthy her implacable enemy, and Smith and Lewis, a homosexual, become a target of his smear tactics.

The demagoguery, defamation, and mudslinging continue, until McCarthy takes on the U.S. Army, a quest that ends with the famous statement: “Have you lost all sense of decency?” It’s a comeuppance the audience savors after so much one-sided verbal violence.

Despite the unsettling resonance with the current political moment, DiPietro avoids cheap political shots, focusing instead on the intense interpersonal dynamics. Smith is a powerful, complex character—a woman with a sense of humor—in DiPietro and Harris’s hands, and Sellars’s McCarthy slowly unravels before your eyes. Junek movingly confesses his homosexuality, and Wake adds an effective touch of sanctimony to Ms Kerr/Mrs. McCarthy.

George Street Playhouse has great skill in bringing such focused biographical works to life, having previously excelled with DiPietro’s The Second Mrs. Wilson and Joanna Glass’s Trying (about aging US Attorney General Francis Biddle). Even though this important play is about politics and therefore, mostly about talking, David Saint’s lively direction never lets its momentum slow. It is mesmerizing.

Conscience is on view at George Street’s beautiful new home at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Avenue. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or contact the Box Office online.

Midwives

Photo: © T Charles Erickson

George Street Playhouse’s world-premiere stage adaptation of Midwives, directed by the theater’s Artistic Director, David Saint, opened January 24 and runs through February 16. Chris Bohjalian’s 1997 suspense novel has sold more than two million copies, and at least two previous attempts have been made to take it from page to stage. For George Street’s version, Bohjalian himself takes on the writing task. That he’s more a novelist than a playwright may account for some of my difficulties with this production.

Sibyl Danforth (played by Ellen McLaughlin), a well-respected Vermont midwife, is attending the labor of Charlotte Bedford (Monique Robinson). On hand are Charlotte’s husband Asa (Ryan George) and Sibyl’s new assistant, Anne Austin (Grace Experience). It’s the middle of the night and an ice storm rages outside and the labor is not going well. Finally, the situation deteriorates to the point that she agrees Charlotte should go to the hospital.

Unfortunately, the storm has knocked out the phone lines and the roads around the Bedfords’ remote farmhouse are impassable. When Charlotte falls unconscious, Sibyl believes she’s had a stroke. She cannot detect blood pressure or pulse. CPR proves fruitless. Faced with a dead mother, Sibyl’s attention turns to saving the infant, using a kitchen knife to cut Charlotte open.

In Act Two, Sibyl is on trial for manslaughter. Anne maintains Charlotte was alive when Sibyl made the incision, and the state’s attorney (Armand Schultz) argues that Sibyl’s intervention killed her. Sibyl’s lawyer (Lee Sellars) says, on the contrary, she saved a life.

Throughout, you have the perspective of Sybil’s daughter, 14-year-old Connie (Molly Carden). The events around Charlotte’s death and her mother’s trial are vivid in Connie’s mind almost a decade later, when she is a budding OB-GYN. While skipping around in time is rather easily handled in a novel, in a play it makes for some awkward scenelets. Especially puzzling were interactions between medical student Connie and Anne.

In ancient times, a sibyl was considered a witch, and, regrettably, the pursuit of Sibyl Danforth becomes a witch-hunt, which oversimplifies many issues. The play would have had a much-needed infusion of drama had it retained the novel’s final surprise as a surprise.

Bohjalian made another important departure from the book when he made Charlotte and Asa Bedford African American. A black preacher and his wife newly arrived in northern Vermont to serve a congregation of Q-tips (Charlotte’s description) shifts the social dynamic and raises unnecessary (and unanswered) questions.

The actors do a good job with the somewhat limited emotional range provided by the script. McLaughlin is stoic, Experience is a master of “I told you so,” and George is the most sympathetic when he declares he doesn’t want Sibyl punished. This is a story that should have been dripping with drama; I don’t understand why it wasn’t.

Midwives is on view at George Street’s beautiful new home at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Avenue. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or contact the Box Office online.

The Trial of Donna Caine

The Trial of Donna Caine

Margarita Levieva and Flor De Liz Perez

George Street Playhouse’s 2018-19 season opens with a military courtroom drama directed by the theater’s long-time artistic director, David Saint. Opening night for this world premiere production was October 19, and it runs through Veterans Day, November 11. That date is appropriate, as the play deals with many issues of military hierarchy and justice.

Inspired by actual events from 1956, playwright and former Parade magazine editor Walter Anderson has adapted a story of the tragic incident in which several Marine recruits died in a nighttime exercise gone wrong. He’s brought the action up to the modern day and interwoven it with themes related to the place of women in the Marines, where male and female recruits are thrown together in the crucible of basic training.

In the play two people are determined that co-ed basic training will work: Lt. Colonel Sandra Eden (played by Julia Brothers) and the former Secretary of the Navy who authorized the program, Roy Gill (John Bolger). But when Staff Sergeant Donna Caine (Flor De Liz Perez) leads her platoon into the South Carolina swamp and a rising tide drowns five of them, their reactions differ greatly. Eden works to befriend Caine, who, by all accounts, is a fine Marine and an exemplary drill sergeant; Gill wants to prove the episode is solely the fault of Caine, not a reflection of the training protocol he promulgated. He feels so strongly that he gets himself appointed the prosecutor in Caine’s civilian trial. (I don’t recommend seeing this with any lawyers; they are likely to be squirming in their seats with objections to various problems that strike at the story’s believability.)

Caine is a difficult defendant, prickly and rigid. She takes all responsibility for the tragedy and is almost paralyzed with grief and self-recrimination. Her lawyer, Emily Zola Ginsberg (Margarita Levieva), tells her there is a big difference between “feeling guilty and being guilty.” While it appears the story is going to tackle the co-ed training head on, it never arrives at any conclusion. In fact, the plot is resolved with a kind of investigatory deus ex machina.

This obviates the need for a final “summation for the jury” that establishes a kind of moral order and has made classics out of courtroom dramas like Judgment at Nuremberg, Inherit the Wind, or To Kill a Mockingbird. I missed that, and the play misses it, because while we are told throughout what brilliant lawyer Ginsberg is, we never get to see it.

Melissa Maxwell, who plays the presiding judge in the case, is terrific. Of all the players, she inhabits her role most completely and comfortably. Others in the cast are Ginsberg’s law partner, Vincent Stone (Peter Frechette), defense counsel sounding-board Sergeant Major Clayton Williams (Michael Cullen), private first class Ellen Colessio (Kally Duling), and Ryan George as Gunnery Sergeant Jacob Jasper Walker. He plays an awkward role as Caine’s immediate supervisor (and we find out, fiancé), called to testify against her. Wouldn’t the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s prohibitions against fraternization make such a relationship problematic? No such difficulties are acknowledged.

George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick is being rebuilt. In the meantime, its productions are mounted at its interim home, 103 College Farm Road in New Brunswick. Tickets available from the online box office, or call 732-246-7717.

Trying: A Play by Joanna Glass

The story of 20th century figure Judge Francis Biddle comes alive in Trying, an engaging play by Joanna McClelland Glass, who was Biddle’s assistant during his last year of life. On stage at the George Street Playhouse through April 8, the play is directed by Jim Jack.

It has an apt title, because the irascible judge was very trying during this period, plagued by illnesses, painful arthritis, and growing infirmities. But he also wanted to finish his memoirs, and Glass (in the play, her character’s name is Sarah) must cajole and persuade and badger him to “try.” She learns to work with the prickly, demanding Biddle, and they develop a strong mutual affection and a relationship that contains a healthy dose of humor.

Biddle was the quintessential “Philadelphia lawyer,” accomplished, educated at elite U.S. institutions and related to or acquainted with a significant number of the country’s patrician leaders. He served numerous posts in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, including as U.S. Solicitor General and U.S. Attorney General.

When the internment of Japanese-Americans was proposed, he initially opposed it, and regretted his later support. (In the play, he expresses this regret and said that episode is where he learned to mistrust the phrase “military necessity.”) He took actions to support African-American civil rights. Perhaps his most notable achievements were as America’s chief judge at the post-World War II Nuremberg trials of leading Nazis. The lobby displays posters with a number of his strong human rights quotations.

Ironically, Glass says in her notes accompanying the play, at the end of his life the two events that preoccupied him were the deaths that robbed him of a young son and his own father when he was six. The lost opportunities to know those two people haunted him.

Even though there are only two actors in the cast, the story clicks right along. Biddle—“81 years old, elegant, sharply cantankerous, and trying to put his life in order”—is played by Philip Goodwin, with increasing frailty of body, but not of spirit, and Cary Zien plays off him well as a sympathetic and energetic young Sarah. The set design conveys the passage of time, with the changing weather and flora outside the window, and though spring arrives and the days grow longer, they are a constant reminder that Biddle’s days are coming to an end.

This is a lovely play, and gives audiences a lot to think about, with respect to the contributions a single person can make—Biddle in his legal career and Glass with her acute perceptions about what constitutes a well-lived life.