Most people think of Martin Luther King Jr. as a beloved leader of the civil-rights movement. What many may not know — or at least not recall — is that in 1967, he drew national ire for his statements against the Vietnam War. That’s the era Michael Murphy chooses for his play “The Conscientious Objector,” and it challenges us to see King as a multifaceted person instead of a monolithic symbol.
Since he’s using less familiar history, it’s easier for Murphy to make King (D.B. Woodside) a dramatic character. At its best, the play is not a dutiful re-creation of actual events but a rumination on popular morality. Famous figures are beholden to the drama, not the other way around.
In his production for the Keen Company, director Carl Forsman underscores that we are watching a classically structured ideological battle. Driven by his conscience and the clear-eyed arguments of his wife, Coretta (Rachel Leslie), King honors an individual calling to oppose Vietnam, even though it could jeopardize his work for African-Americans. His foil is President Johnson (John Cullum), who believes the war can serve the public good.
The individual has opposed the state since “Antigone,” and Forsman often places his leads apart from the other characters, like Greek heroes addressing a chorus. But when the men share the stage, they are close together, creating the energy of colliding forces.
Woodside’s quiet perf shows the power of listening. As fellow civil-rights leaders bark suggestions on how to address Vietnam (or beg him to stop his protests), King absorbs their words in stillness. Only his eyes indicate what he’s thinking, and his focus makes him a captivating center of attention.
It also sharpens the moments when King loses control, unsure he’s on the right path. The same is true for Cullum, who makes Johnson an obscene, testy cowboy until a moving encounter with King forces him to feel doubt.
The supporting cast complements these perfs when they appear in small groups, but Forsman loses control of the crowd scenes. As emotions escalate, shouting overwhelms the stage.
Beowulf Boritt’s set ironically comments on King and Johnson’s turmoil. The back wall is a black-and-white riff on the American flag, criticizing the oversimplification of morality.
Murphy could make that statement if he ended with a scene in which President Johnson and Rev. King share their mutual feelings of uncertainty. However, he follows that thorny, satisfying moment with two arduous scenes about King’s assassination. For the first time, the play replaces dramatic purpose with textbook regurgitation, and it falls flat.
We are left with Coretta delivering an antiwar speech that becomes a blatant comment on Iraq. It’s a ham-fisted gesture unworthy of an often-sophisticated production.