Make a fist if you remember the 1960s. Better yet, unclench your fist and hail a cab over to Primary Stages’ production of “Something You Did,” Willy Holtzman’s political drama about ’60s radicalism viewed in the harsh light of the present day. Coming so soon after the trash can bombing in Times Square and the release followed by the re-arrest of Sara Jane Olson (aka Kathleen Soliah when she was in the Symbionese Liberation Army), there are unsettling echoes in this restrained, but still provocative prison drama about a woman who comes up for parole 30 years after killing a man in a Vietnam protest bombing.
In the play (commissioned by Baltimore’s Center Stage and first produced at the People’s Light & Theater Company, in Malvern, Pa.), the death of a security guard at Grand Central Station was unplanned and accidental. The radical group that planted the nail bomb only wanted to make a political statement about the use of cluster bombs in Vietnam.
“We targeted property, not people,” an anguished Alison Moulton (Joanna Gleason) explains to Lenora (Adriane Lenox), the guard’s daughter, who is dead set against the release of her father’s killer. “We turned to armed struggle as a last resort.”
That’s one reason why Holtzman’s play feels soft. It’s hard to determine how radical this outfit really is, when its threats of violence are metaphorical and any real violence is accidental. Are the members supposed to be the Weathermen? The SLA? Or, in their pacifist heart of hearts, are they no more dangerous than the Living Theater?
As Lenora succinctly puts it to Alison, “When does a bomb stop being symbolic?” Alison’s persona as a young radical is also a bit woozy. We know she was a peaceable activist in the civil rights movement. But we also learn that she bought the nails that turned a symbolic bomb into an anti-personnel weapon.
Whether she was a mad bomber or a bleeding heart in her youth, Alison is now a certifiable saint. “Look at all the good you’re doing,” her lawyer, Arthur Ross (the cute and crusty Jordan Charney), points out. “AIDS counseling, literacy program.” When she isn’t tutoring Uneeq, a young prison guard played with nice sass by Portia, she’s socializing seeing-eye dogs in a program called Puppies Behind Bars. If Alison the Good doesn’t get her sentence lifted, there’s no justice on this bitter earth.
With Gleason taking Alison gently, but firmly in hand, there is no real danger that Holtzman’s sentimentalizing of her character will go too far. This is one tenderly crafted performance, and whatever Alison fails to tell us about herself, Gleason fills in with a pained look, an averted glance, a hesitant hand gesture, or some subtle verbal clue. With such sensitive treatment, Alison emerges as a woman who has paid for her crime and earned her freedom.
But while she may have spent 30 years in a private hell of guilt, remorse and self-recrimination, she’s damned if she’ll give up her political ideals. Even more than the parole board’s decision about releasing Alison, that’s the play’s real point of tension.
Carolyn Cantor’s well-focused helming seizes on such telling moments as when Alison struggles to justify her desire to get out of prison. First she tries goodness (“I can help other people”), then reason (“I want to make up for what I did”), and finally settles for honesty (“I want to sit on a park bench and watch a squirrel”).
We don’t really get a glimpse of the old, rebellious and passionate Alison, though, until late in the play, when she gets a visit from Gene Biddle (Victor Slezak), a former lover who has renounced the values of the old left and turned into an opportunistic neo-con columnist.
Even in Slezak’s slick perf, there’s no real question about Gene’s motives in trying to help Alison. But the fireworks finally go off when these two start hurling their bombs of ideological contention — still hot to the touch, after all these years. She gets him on the white intellectual guilt trip; but for the record, he trumps her with a depth charge about Stokely Carmichael throwing all the white kids out of SNCC.
The savvy Primary Stages aud gasped out loud at that one — and indeed, anyone who was taking sides during the ’60s will share their intense interest in this play. One does wonder, though, what people who never heard of Kathy Boudin or Soliah — or even Patty Hearst, for that matter — will make of this poignant, but solipsistic drama.