SPLENDID REBELS - Through December 10 at New Playwrights' Theater.
The romantic heroine: hair in a loose gray top-knot, eyes snapping behind round glasses, skirts flapping to her purposeful stride, accented voice barking orders, wisecracks - even barking out her affection.
And yet Dana Vance's Emma Goldman, in "Splendid Rebels" at the New Playwrights' Theater, is beautiful. The Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne was young and statuesque, but W.B. Yeats' poem "No Second Troy" - "What could have made her peaceful with a mind / That nobleness made simple as a fire" - also fits this "old Emma Goldman, the radical yenta," as she describes herself.
The play, written by the theater's playwright-in-residence Ernest Joselovitz and directed by Robert Schulte, is surprisingly more of a portrait than a political argument. That is a detraction in this well-staged play with its fine acting and unobtrusively skillful settings.
Red Emma, the anarchist leader, is being tried for conspiracy to persuade young men not to register for conscription during World War I, but she wisely confines her courtroom arguments to the legal questions, not the political issues. And because the political issues that do come up in the course of the play, such as conscientious objection and birth control, have since become more acceptable, there is an implication that Goldman was simply a woman ahead of her time, as if her anarchism were merely the equivilent of today's liberalism.
Another oddity is the fact that the protagonist of the play is the young J. Edgar Hoover, working to deport Emma Goldman as an undesirable alien. With Hoover now safely dead, it is made to seem obvious that it's his cold zeal and iron tactics that are un-American, not Goldman's passion. These matters are not ready to be taken for granted yet, and the playwright has skipped over the need to thrash them out.
But as portraiture - of her, of her companion, Alexander Beckman, and of Hoover - this is engrossing work. The flashing mind of Emma Goldman, eloquent and uncompromising; her all-embracing sensuality, whether directed at a lover, her nephew or a morphine-addicted prostitute; and he discomfort caused her intimates by her platform-sized brilliance in the parlor make a marvelous character. Dana Vance's dynamism is contrasted effectively with the softer character of Jerry Prell as Berkman, her lifelong companion who shares her fervor but not her charismatic leadership. She gives him a dose of poetic memories to get him through one more night that they spend in jail; as it begins to work, and he stirs in response, she has sensibly dropped off to sleep, marshaling her strength for the battles ahead.
T.G. Finkbinder has created a terrifying Hoover with sparse and controlled behavior, the opposite of Emma Goldman's personal flamboyance. his scrubbed look and meticulous planning make his methods chillingly bloodless and his destruction beyond the reach of any retaliation. With his demeanor so well suited to courtroom procedure, it becomes fascinating to watch him while Goldman, with her unfailing instincts about human behavior, suddenly brings out great doses of cold logic to fight him on these grounds.