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A CurtainUp Review
Something You Did

I still have my ideals. You want to pretend the past never existed.—Alison
I don't deny the past. I just consign it to its proper developmental place, like acne

Alison Moulton may be guilty of a criminal action, but how many of us are guilty of moral inaction? How many of us stand by and do nothing?—Playwright Willy Holtzman in the detailed insert included with the program for Something You Did, a dramatized look at a participant in a headline making bombing within the larger political context of our post 9/11 five-year-old War Against Terror.
Something You did
Joanna Gleason (Photo: James Leynse.)
The war in Iraq has passed the five-year mark. Besides thousands of dead and wounded, and staggering expenditures, this struggle has resulted in a rash of plays about the war against terror at home and abroad . It was almost inevitable that a thoughtful playwright would return to the dissent prompted by the equally unpopulr, undeclared war in Vietnam. Something You Did, is that play.

review continues below

On the surface Willy Holtzman is telling the story of one person, a long-imprisoned member of the 60s revolutionary group known as the Weatherman Underground (They took their name from a line from the Bob Dylan song "Subterranean Homesick Blues"— "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."). But while it has all the earmarks of a prison story, this is very much a political play with the broader concern of examining the response of people with a bent for strong action to express their protest against any war or government sponsored policies they consider unjust.

The setup is simple. Alison (Joanna Gleason) is in her 50s, a lifer in a woman's maximum prison facility as a result of a bombing that went awry and killed a police officer. After 30 years of incarceration during which she has done valuable work, such as counselling women with AIDS, she's about to make another try for parole which has been denied several times previously.

While Alison is Mr. Holtzman's invention, the character bears more than a vague resemblance to one of the Weatherman Underground's best known members, Kathy Boudin. People familiar with Boudin's activist days and her family and prison history (amply detailed in Wikipedia), will also recognize real life role models in two of the play's other characters: Arthur (Jordan Charney), her late father's law partner and a long time family friend, and Gene (Victor Slezak), a fellow 60s rebel and former lover who not only weathered the group's downward spiral but traded his idealism for more convenient and profitable politics closer to neocon concervatism.

There are two other characters, one to add additional drama and the other to provide some much needed comic relief and a somewhat contrived but nevertheless welcome conclusive ending: Uneeq (Portia) the tough but sympathetic prison guard with whom Alison has a relationship of sorts and Lenora (Adrieane Lenox), the daughter of the cop who became the victim of the botched bombing for which Alison is in jail. Lenora appears just once, summoned by Alison in hopes of persuading her not to testify against her at the upcoming parole hearing. Uneeq is happily on scene quite frequently.

The entire 80-minute play unfolds in the library where Alison works and is allowed to receive visitors. As designed by Eugene Lee, it's a plain and fairly unintimidating setting, but there's a garland of barbed wire and a chain link backdrop and Lindsay Jones' somber music and sound design to remind us that this is not your old-fashioned neighborhood library but a prison.

Holtzman's use of the upcoming parole hearing as the device to give the play a plot arc and to introduce the characters and issues that define Alison's past and present has some of the earmarks of a TV prison movie but rises above this genre thanks to his often sharp dialogue and a well-chosen cast. The play reminded me a bit of another excellent prison drama I reviewed five years ago, Rona Munro's Iron (review). That play was a more dramatic psychological thriller and also had strong performances by its central character and a memorable (though for different reasons) prison guard. Though Something You Did, is hardly a thriller or all that suspenseful (especially for anyone familiar with the Boudin story) this isn't a fatal flow since Carolyn Cantor's has directed it with attention holding sensitivity and Joanna Gleason once again demonstrates her diverse range (she's distinguished herself in musical roles like Dirty Rotten Scandal as well as dramas).

But good as Gleason is in portraying Alison as a woman desperately clinging to her idealism, struggling with her conscience and aching to be free rather than die in prison, it's Jordan Charney as Alison's lawyer and chief loyalist and most especially Portia as the sassy Uneeq who really light up the stage. Victor Slezak does the political chameleon with enough self-serving, self-righteousness to make your skin crawl . Adriane Lenox, while aptly icy and bitter, fails to project what she has to say which is hard to excuse in a theater this small.

If you're planning to buy a ticket, you might want to aim for one of the Tuesdays when the play will be followed by forums on the topic of "The Prison Nation." to be moderated by David Rothenberg, founder of The Fortune Society (and WBAI radio host).

by Willy Holtzman
Directed by Carolyn Cantor.
Cast: Joanna Gleason (Alison), Jordan Charney (Arthur), Adriane Lenox (Leonora), Portia (Uneeq), Victor Slezak (Gene).
Sets: Eugene Lee
Costumes: Jenny Mannis
Lighting: Jeff Croiter
Original Music and sound design: Lindsay Jones
Stage Manager: Samone B. Weissman Primary Stages at 59E59 212-279-4200
< From 3/18/08; opening 4/01/08; closing 4/26/08
Running Time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Tickets $60; $20 for patrons under 35 during previews.
Tue at 7pm; Wed - Sat at 8pm; Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm
reviewed by Elyse Sommer 3/29/08

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