Theater Review: The Actors' Gang Tour of 'The Trial of the Catonsville Nine'

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 12, 2009

"It is our soul that got us into trouble," a defendant asserts at one point in "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine," Daniel Berrigan's docudrama about a notable act of civil disobedience during the Vietnam War. The same might be said of the Actors' Gang touring version of the play -- which landed in Richmond earlier this week, and is slated to hit the Reston Community Center on Saturday and the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Thursday and Friday. Declamatory and aesthetically staid, it's a production so conscious of its own indisputably noble aims that it lands with all the delicacy of a thumping gavel.

Admittedly, some spectators will have a more positive reaction, if Tuesday's performance at the University of Richmond's Modlin Center for the Arts is anything to go by. The evening (attended by Actors' Gang Artistic Director Tim Robbins) ended with audible sniffles from some audience members as the cast solemnly folded an enormous American flag to the strains of a religious protest song.

And to be fair, director Jon Kellam, who is presumably responsible for the none-too-subtle flag-folding sequence, isn't working with the most promising material. Priest and writer Berrigan was one of the nine Catholic antiwar activists arrested for burning Selective Service records with homemade napalm in the Baltimore suburb of Catonsville on May 17, 1968. Brought to trial later that year, the protesters (all ultimately convicted) took the opportunity to explain in court how various life experiences -- including first-hand encounters with U.S. foreign policy in Guatemala -- had prompted their act of conscience.

Berrigan subsequently drew his play from transcripts of the trial, giving ample scope to the idealistic, back-story-freighted testimony of his comrades (including his brother Philip, also a priest). As a result, the script is numbingly expository and short on moments of humanizing characterization. The protesters aren't so much real people as mouthpieces for nonviolent-resistance theory. The fact that the play's themes are obviously timely in 2009 -- Vietnam has sometimes been invoked in discussions of America's current military engagements -- only makes the piece feel more didactic.

Kellam attempts to inject theatricality with stylized movement: Discrete sections of the play conclude with a portentous drum-and-chime sound, at which point the performers scurry about briefly like speed-walkers. Otherwise, most of the scenes are relatively static, with the cast -- doubling as defendants and lawyers -- positioned at wooden chairs, benches and railings evoking a courtroom. (Sibyl Wickersheimer designed the set, with its solemn flag backdrop.)

Despite the constraining setting, some of the actors manage to channel their characters' idiosyncrasies and passion. Colin Golden is enjoyably wry and nerdy as David Darst, who describes the immolation of 378 draft files as "a Bonnie and Clyde act on behalf of God and man." Patti Tippo exudes distraught mousiness as a government clerk who's a witness; later, as defendant Marjorie Melville, she's all perky confidence. With his forceful voice and manner, Andrew E. Wheeler is reasonably charismatic as Daniel Berrigan, but Scott Harris's version of brother Philip is a tad bland.

The most appealing character is the sympathetic but exasperated judge (an artful Adele Robbins) who often interrupts testimony with such exclamations as "We are not trying the U.S.'s actions in Guatemala!" As an audience member at this well-meaning and intellectually substantial but very preachy play, it's easy to feel a similar frustration.

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine by Daniel Berrigan. Presented by the Actors' Gang. Directed by Jon Kellam; costume design, Susan Patterson Dalian; lighting, Jacqueline Reid; music and sound design, David Robbins; movement, Melina Bielefelt. Two hours. Saturday: The CenterStage at Reston Community Center, 2310 Colts Neck Rd., Reston. Call 703-476-4500 or visit Thursday and Friday: Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park. Call 301-405-2787 or visit

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