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A CurtainUp Review
The Conscientious Objector
By Elyse Sommer
First there's the play. Mr. Murphy has once again harnessed public records to create a timely drama well worth reexamining. In The Conscientious Objector the fact-based story revolves around the Reverend Martin Luther King's stance against the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1968. The dialogue (most of which is taken verbatim or augmented from recorded and otherwise documented conversations) could apply to our latest undeclared war which ended its fifth year just before the official opening of Murphy's play.
Like Sin, The Conscientious Objector isn't the sort of muckraking play to effect any specific changes but, for the most part, it does effectively recreate a slice of history — history which, per some of the quotes above, we're less likely to learn from than to repeat. While the plot's focal character is Martin Luther King don't mistake this for a biographical drama. The parallels between the 60s events and the present are so obvious that the author's focus on this troubled period in King's career tend to come off mainly as a device to dramatize the follies of Bush and Company's war against terror.
Probably the single most persuasive reason not to miss this production is John Cullum. Looking nothing like Lyndon Johnson, he is nevertheless uncannily like Johnson. It's riveting to watch him project the folksy and often volatile temperament and inelegant speech patterns of the man who inherited the Vietnam problem along with the powers of office when John F. Kennedy was shot. It's an acting master class!
Whenever Cullum's Johnson enters through one of the doors of Beowulf Boritt's starkly symbolic scenic design (a stars and stripes background in a grisaille palette to suggest gray and dismal times with just a few grimly color-coordinated props) the Harold Clurman Theater's stage explodes into life. His speech supporting General Westmoreland's request for more troops, much like the current Surge, trenchantly reminds one of George W. Bush's rationalizations: "I do not believe that America will buckle. I believe that every American will say I did not retreat when the going got tough. I did not fall back when the enemy advanced, when the terrorists attacked . . ." (The actual and much repeated Johnson quote was "When the going gets tough the tough get going").
The tall, lean and handsome DB Woodside resembles the Reverend King even less than Cullum resembles Johnson. Unfortunately, he not only doesn't look like King but fails to capture his charisma or the rich cadences of the voice that so memorably declared "I Have a Dream." While he has mastered his lines (including some hefty speeches), Woodside's performance, especially in the rather slow moving first act, fits the first half of his name. Granted, King was going through a difficult period, but that hardly explains why his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) colleagues all come across as more animated than he. You could look at this laid back acting as underscoring King's non-violent, listen-to-all-sides persona. However, it makes King comes across like a man in a clinical depression which does little to give conviction to his brave and determined actions even at the risk of a breach with his friends and supporters, not to mention with the President.
Woodside's best and strongest moments come when he's with Cullum. However, while their final scene together is quite powerful, it somewhat weirdly brings to mind the much talked about image of Richard Nixon and and Henry Kissinger supposedly kneeling in the Oval Office during the last dark days of that administration. Could Murphy have intended this to point out how strange and dysfunctional so many of our administrations have been?
The performances from rest of the cast vary. Bryan Hicks conveys just the right degree of passion as King's closest colleague Ralph Abernathy who urges him to consider the risk opposing the war will pose to the voting rights and open housing acts and support from the Justice department. (As Abernathy puts it "Good-bye. good bye, good-bye!"). Hicks would probably have been a fine choice to play Martin Luther King.
Jimonn Cole tends to go over the top as James Bevel, another preacher and friend who has turned red-hot anti-war activist. Jonathan Hogan, an always reliable actor, multi-tasks ably. His main part is as J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI chief for whom surveilance was a much used and abused weapon in the fight against the Communists who were terrorists of that era.
Rachel Leslie as Coretta King, the only woman in the eleven-member cast, doesn't really have much to do. That's also true of the actors playing Andrew Young; King adviser Stanley Levison; Ambassador Arthur Goldberg who was persuaded to leave the Supreme Court to take on this post; NAACP president, and eventually Urban League head, Whitney Young who, fearing a political backlash, denounced King even though he eventually regretted his support for the President.
Perhaps it's because some of the support actors have so little opportunity to define themselves that Mr. Forsman has opted to make them look more like their role models. Ms. Leslie especially has been coiffed and dressed as a Coretta King replica (Theresa Squire's outfits for the whole cast smartly match the scenery which makes for a most effective curtain call). Except for the Kings, Johnson and Hoover, these names are not likely to mean much to younger viewers unfamiliar with this period in American history. It might have been a good idea to add some sort of projected text, voice-over or even an occasionally appearing narrator.
My reservations about Woodside's portrayal of King aside, some of the observation he gets to make are eerily pertinent; as when, after stepping back from the anti-war movement he explains why he feels compelled to get back in: "We get out now and we can still have some effect on the chaos we'll leave behind. Or we're just going to end up limping home sometime in the future, humiliated, leaving a chaos beyond anyone's control." And with our economy reeling from trillions spent in Iraq, what could be more current than his despairing "My god, all the money we have in America, if we'd stop spending so much of it on war. . .We could give jobs to people."
Mr. Murphy gives us some wonderful metaphors to link political practices and promises to marriage. There's Johnson's likening a President's initial relationship with Congress to that of a bride (the President) and /bridegroom (Congress). As he tells King "Havin' been the groom on more than one occasion, I can tell you, he's in a very accomodatin' state of mind. He wants nothing more than to please his new bride and if she moves quickly, she can get pretty much everytin' she wants."
When towards the end of the play Abernathy tries to dissuade King from marching with striking garbage worker in Memphis as a step backward, King answers with his own marital metaphor: "I took a vow. I, Martin Luther King, take thee, non-violence, to be my wedded wife, for better or words, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part." Too bad that Memphis trip ended with the sad reality of that "death do us part" vow.
To read our review of Sin (A Cardinal Deposed) go here