Thirty-nine years after the Catonsville, Md., burning of 378 Selective Service files that led to the titular proceeding, and 36 years after helming the Taper premiere, Gordon Davidson assembled a dream cast for a one-night staged reading of Father Daniel Berrigan’s transcript-based free-verse drama to benefit the progressive Office of the Americas and Tim Robbins’ Actors’ Gang. “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine” is a trenchant document that deserves to be back on the boards as often as possible, especially now that the issues it addresses are so relevant and pressing.
Cavalcade of prominent antiwar thesps combined offstage passion with onstage skill to create persuasive sketches of the nine Catholic clergy and laity in the dock. Defendants’ roads to protest began as disparately as Guatemala, Uganda and the American South, but all were animated by profound convictions about what Christianity means, or ought to mean.
Tribunal-like arrangement of black chairs and music stands conveyed the original trial atmosphere and enhanced play’s formal challenge to present-day values. One needn’t wholly accept the analogy between Vietnam then and Iraq today (and the reading deftly emphasized numerous parallels) for the play to prompt consideration of each individual’s responsibility in the face of profound wrong. Author’s stance is crystal clear, but we’re permitted to draw our own conclusions in the best tradition of agitprop.
Memorable testimony came from Camryn Manheim, shaking with righteous fury at the memory of U.S. bombing in Africa; Neil Patrick Harris as the artist forced into real-life engagement (what an actor this guy has become); Frances Conroy, hard to hear but impossible to dismiss as a Draft Board clerk; and Anthony Zerbe reprising his original role as wry, fiery George Mische in a late-inning replacement for Liev Schreiber.
The brothers Berrigan were also well represented by Tim Robbins (Philip) and Martin Sheen (Daniel), each polite and restrained until anger and anguish provoked each to sound an eloquent clarion call for activism and justice.
For all the star power, local favorite Dakin Matthews’ Judge was the linchpin of the evening, providing most of the humor through his repeated efforts to limit the scope of the proceedings (“We are not here to try the history of the world in the 20th century”). His later admission of complete agreement with the accused’s views, coupled with a spirited defense of his options under the law, suddenly became a living embodiment of the conflict between conscience and statute at play’s, and society’s, heart.
Production began with black-and-white film footage of the Catonsville incident. Father Dan was underground for the Taper preem in ’71 and prevented by ill health from appearing at the Kirk Douglas, but letters read aloud by and from him proved his spirit was irrefutably in evidence on both occasions.