“Good character is not the rationale for a crime,” is a line from Father Daniel Barrigan's play, “The Trial of the Catonsville 9,” a staging of the trial of nine Catholic activists who burned more than 300 draft records in a protest against the Vietnam War. The line applies to the situation of the trial of the activists as well as the execution of the material.
Berrigan was one of the nine people who on May 17, 1968, entered an office in Catonsville, Md., stole federal conscription records, set them on fire and waited for alerted police to make arrests. The script is written in free verse and is a partial transcript of the trial. The first act consists of characters stating their purposes for the crime in lengthy stories of past experiences, morality, interpretation of Christian doctrine and social conscience. The second act focuses on the group conscience of the nine and the rational of the judge to keep the jury focused on the facts of the event rather than the moral justifications of it.
This play is directed to be oddly Spartan. A spider weblike parachute hangs along the back of the stage, draped over by a huge American flag. Other set pieces consist of two plain benches, two pieces of handrail fashioned on stands, four plain wooden chairs and a podium on a small platform. The actors stoically move the set pieces around, apparently only to lend some animation to the production. The stories and messages of the play are quite passionate, but the actors, who are very good, seem to have been directed by Jon Kellam to be almost static in movement and uniform in the rhythm of verbal delivery. Sadly, the production choices, which seem to be made to allow the audience to focus on the words, have the opposite effect creating an atmosphere of droning, repetitive, preachy speeches. Theologians, activists and perhaps lawyers may find the dynamics of the play intriguing, but for the average audience this presentation lacks life.
The message of the play is crystal clear: People have an ethical duty to act in situations in which a public authority engages in immoral, illegal or unethical manner.
But sadly the message is unable to spark inspiration. Using trial transcripts to create a script means that there are plenty of beautiful words without the artistry of storytelling. Trying to create a story onstage without the use of stagecraft is deadly. The crime committed in this production robs the message of its impact and the murder of any inspiration the play might have induced.
The Actors' Gang presents “The Trial of the Catonsville 9” tonight at the Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. with a talk-back session after the show with founder Tim Robbins and the cast. Tickets are $32-$34 (discounts for UR employees and students). For information visit www.modlin.richmond.edu or call 289-8980.