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It is 1917 and the United States is about to take up arms in support of France and England in their war with Germany. At the University of Nebraska where Andrew Schrag, a German-American, is the chair of the German department, the importance, relevance and significance of the First Amendment come under fire. The Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918 have enabled government officials to seek out, expose and indict all those who would speak out against the government's war-promoting policies.
Based on the real experience of playwright David Wiltse's grandfather, Sedition focuses on how Professor Schrag's values as well as his marriage and career, are affected, as he speaks out in defense of the amendment that guarantees the freedom of speech. The play clearly reveals the consequences that result when a forthright and bold man takes the initiative to stand up and speak his mind when his views do not conform to popular opinion.
A vocal and literate man of strong ideals, Schrag (as played with impassioned intensity by John Pietrowski) tries in vain to persuade Tellig (Merritt Reid), a zealous 19 year-old student not to go off to war. Sadly, the young man is killed over there. Schrag, although reluctant to speak out publicly, denounces President Wilson's decision for America to get involved in the European conflict at a memorial service for Tellig ("He died for Wilson's fantasy,"). Sentiments in America are such that sauerkraut is re-named "liberty cabbage," and German delicatessens are being vandalized, among other overt acts of public anger toward German citizens.
Schrag is identified as a dissenter by a fellow professor and political activist Cassidy (Sean Marrinan) to Megrim (Walker Jones), an insidiously devious but resolute government official instructed to weed out disloyal Americans. On top of this, Schrag's conflicted wife Harriet (Marianna McClellan) tries to convince her highly principled husband not to damage his standing at the university and to regard the advice of the University Chancellor (Paul Murphy), a pompous and autocratic administrator who is mostly interested in protecting the Government grants that have led to the invention and production of "mustard gas." His condescending remark directed at Schrag, "You people in the humanities," gets a solid laugh, as it defines the administrator's attitude.
While the play is full of speeches, they are provocative and compelling and written to not to sound like polemics. They do serve to reveal the ardent natures of the characters, their motives and missions. Pietrowski, who is more prominently known as the artistic director of Playwrights Theater, proves himself an impressive actor in a demanding and wordy role: one that ultimately defines Schrag as committed to his wife as he is to his principals. As Harriet, McLellan finds a nice balance between being tender and tenacious. Jones is scarily loathsome as the fascistic inquisitor Megrim. Murphy manages, however, to elicit even more of our rage as the duplicitous Chancellor. Reid is convincing as the ill-fated student.
James Glossman's direction is crucial as it keeps us committed and engaged for the entire two hours. Scenes flow fluidly from one to the next without a lost second. This is not helped, however, by designer Drew Francis's clumsy set of grayish frayed panels. Costume designer Bettina P. Bierly's perfect period attire is to be commended. Topical and timely, despite taking place 90 years ago, Wiltse's compelling play not only considers the abuse of power in critical times but also forces us to consider the current definition of patriotism in the light of the equally repellent Patriot Act, wholesale wire-tapping, the torturing of detainees, and other desecrations of our democratic ideals. A solid well-intentioned play, Sedition is a co-production with Shadowland theatre in Ellenville, NY. It had its world premiere at the Westport Country Playhouse in 2007.
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