While set in 1917, David Wiltse’s tautly conceived scholastic drama “Sedition” draws an eerie parallel to current events and the dubious participation of U.S. troops in foreign conflicts. Based on actual events at the U. of Nevada, the drama sets the stage for a serving of proto-McCarthyism. Along with its gnawing timeliness, the play boasts pertinent intelligence and verbal muscle in its Garden State preem.
A patriotic young student (Merritt Reid) approaches his professor, Andrew Schrag (a persuasive John Pietrowski), with a request to drop his German course at the university in order to join the military in the early days of the WWI. Schrag is reluctant to support President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to join the fray and is urged by a colleague to sign a petition asking the government to remain neutral.
It appears the board of regents may dismiss any teacher whose behavior is considered unsupportive of the government’s actions. An investigation by the state Council of Defense focuses upon instructors suspected of seditious activity, and Schrag, an American-born son of German immigrants, comes under acute surveillance.
Pietrowski, artistic director of the Playwrights Theater for the past 17 years, gives a fervently honest portrayal of the proud intellectual. Adopting a noble posture, Pietrowski conveys a sense of inordinate self-confidence.
Walter Jones plays the mean-spirited inquisitor. Not unlike the unyielding deputy governor Danforth of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” he is a relentless prosecutor with a condescending grin on his face, who plays out front to the audience members as if they were spectators at a hearing.
Reid’s brief scene as the enthusiastic young student is acted with appealing boyish naivete, and Marianna McClellan adds starch to the concerned character of Schrag’s none-too-supportive wife, who sees her husband as both courageous and stupid.
As the bluff and blowzy college chancellor, Paul Murphy humphs most effectively, giving the play its physically gruff humorous edge. Sean Marrinan is the troubled associate professor forced to reveal names, his affable, breezy persona quick to crumble.
While respecting the playwright’s request for minimal staging, director James Glossman has guided his players well in trenchantly mounted verbal conflict. However, a sparsely furnished and gloomy, unattractive set — boxed in by large panels wrapped like brown paper packages and centered by a seldom-used sprawling ramp — does little to complement the action.