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The Trial of the Catonsville Nine

All of those years I thought they were devils, but they're just people.—Mary E. Murphy
catonsville 9
Pictured (L to R): David Huynh and Mia Katigbak (Carol Rosegg) Date 1/30/2019
On May 17, 1968, nine Catholic activists entered the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, took 378 draft files, brought them into the parking lot and burned them with homemade napalm. Theirs was one of the first major protests against the war in Vietnam.

Father Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest; Philip Berrigan, a former Josephine priest; Br. David Durst, a De La Salle Christian Brother; John Hogan; Tom Lewis, an artist; George Mische; Mary Moylan; and Marjorie Bradford Melville and her husband Thomas Melville, a former Maryknoll priest, were arrested, tried and sentenced to a varying number of years in prison.

Daniel Berrigan, who led the protest with his brother Daniel, was also an award-winning poet, and in 1970 he wrote The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. It premiered at the Lyceum Theatre in 1971. In 1972, the play was adapted into a film produced by Gregory Peck. Now, decades later, with the United States involved in new wars, Transport Group, in partnership with The National Asian American Theatre Company, is reviving The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, adapted and directed by Jack Cummings III.

Transport Group has a well-deserved reputation for innovative staging. And, in this respect, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine does not disappoint. With the house empty and dark, the audience sits onstage, surrounding a group of metal desks piled high with photos and documents. The action is punctuated with dramatic lighting and period music.

Mary Murphy, chief clerk of the draft board; her children; the nine defendants; their attorney; the prosecution; members of the jury and the judge are all played by David Huynh, Mia Katigbak and Eunice Wong. The nine defendants are especially effective. They state their case with great emotion and conviction.

One wants desperately to like these people and love the play. But after 85 minutes, consisting mostly of heroic speeches, we can only come to the conclusion that Berrigan's play does not make for a particularly compelling drama.

The Catonsville Nine don't just question the U.S. role in Vietnam. Their accusations extend to U.S. interference in Latin America and Africa, as well as racism back home. The litany of offenses will be familiar to the liberals who will most probably comprise the majority of the audience. Others, if by chance they see the play, will in all likelihood remain unconvinced.

When Philip Berrigan says, "Let the President think less of the privileged and more of the poor! Less of America and more of the world!" his words will no doubt strike a chord with many in the audience. But when the prosecutior asserts, "If these people were entitled to be acquitted by virtue of their sincerity and religion and conviction, then according to the same logic, should not the man who commits any other crime also be entitled to acquittal?" he too is making an important point about American justice.

To the extent that The Trial of the Catonsville Nine makes us think, it is very much like a good documentary. But the play does not have the trajectory of a good drama. Though at times we are moved by Berrigan's poetry and decency, there are also times when we're just bored.

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The Trial of the Catonsville Nine By Daniel Berrigan
Directed and Adapted by Jack Cummings III
Cast: David Huynh, Mia Katgbak, Eunice Wong
Scenic & Costume Design: Peiyi Wong
Lighting Design: R. Lee Kennedy
Sound Design & Original Music: Fan Zhang
Production Manager: Ryan Gastelum
Running Time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Abrons Art Center, 466 Grand Street
From 1/6/19; opening 2/06/19; closing 2/23/19
Tuesday thru Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 3pm
Tickets: $60
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Feb. 2, 2019

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