In "Splendid Rebels," the New Playwrights' Theater has its finest play, an absorbing drama about Emma Goldman that merits a Big League production. This introductory role is what the intimate theater at 1742 Church St. NW is all about, and the play does what the Kennedy Center's recent "Semmelweiss" failed to do: involve us.
The author is Ernest Joselovitz, of NPT's 1976 drama, "Hagar's Children." This is larger in scope, more demanding of technique. Under Robert Schulte's firm direction, the production serves the play very well, thanks especially to Dana Vance as Goldman.
Russian-born Goldman was one of our early 20th-century irritants, a leader in labor relations, peace movements, women's rights and other unpopular causes. She outrage the dominant WASP culture, being a raspyvoiced, middle-aged, ugly Jewish woman who lived with her lover without the then-customary blessings. At best, she had an impatient temper, but above all she boasted outspoken common sense.
Joselovitz wisely confines his action to Goldman's 1917 fight on behalf of conscientious objectors to World War I. He notes that her chief attacker was a young lawyer in the Justice Department who took the strong position that aliens who made threats against the United States government should be deported. His name was John Edgar Hoover.
Coming to the aid of Goldman and her lover, Alexander Berkman, was a reluctant but conscientious Chicago lawyer named Clarence Darrow. There are other names from history's record, including the judge who decides that Goldman's Carnegie Hall speech deserved both jail and deportation.
Act I's seven scenes are engrossing exposition: Goldman's and Berkman's backgrounds - her efforts to better social conditions, his attempt to murder Big Steel's Henry Clay Frick - are presented. Effective counterpoint is developed through Goldman's treasured, 18-year-old nephew, a violinist, who decides to enlist in the Army.
The trial to decide whether she had "incited to riot" in her Carnegie Hall speech forms Act II, a nicely done example of courtroom drama. Prosecution witness are trapped by Goldman for, typically, though Darrow is at her side, she insists on being her own lawyer.
For Act III Joselovitz narrows into the emotional tie between Goldman and Berkman, exploring their mutual needs under scrappy exteriors. With the chance for appeal, will she prefer deportation to be with him?
Joselovitz is a compelling play wright, perceptive in construction and finely concise in dialogue. Vance gives her rich role of Emma Goldman admirable command, shading Goldman's harshness with splendidly varied degrees of impatience, humor and tenderness. In the large cast Jerry Prell's Berkman has well-disciplined strength, and T.G. Finkbender is admirably restrained as John Edgar Hoover. Richard DeAngelis, Jim Byrnes and Nelson Smith are, too.
Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays through Dec. 10.