"The American Way," a "document-dramatization of un-American activities 1938-1981" now playing at Arlington's 60-seat Touchstone Theatre, is a good example of how the effective use of a small space and minimal resources can produce a stimulating evening.
Using congressional testimony, letters, articles and speeches, Douglas Allchin and Jeffrey Walker have fashioned a one-hour, 454-minute tour of the government-sponsored search for communists that was led by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The philosophical perspective of the authors is clear -- those who refused to testify, the Ring Lardners and the Lillian Hellmans, are the heroes and the congressional investigators, the Richard Nixons and the J. Parnell Thomases are the villains.
Allchin and Walker carry the message further by relating the witch hunts of the distant past to events of recent past and present, such as the shooting of several communists in Greensboro, N.C., last year, and the recent establishment of the Senate Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism. The clear implication is that we are headed into a new era in which those with anti-establishment or unpopular political beliefs will be subject fo surveillance and repression. The format of "The American Way" is similar to a staged reading: the audience faces a table where witnesses sit, and the interrogators sit behind the audience, thus making the spectators seem part of the committee. The actors file in and sit in chairs flanking the playing area while interrogation is reenacted, interspersed with narrative links read by three commentators. The movement, costumes and scenery are kept to a minimum with the use of slides the only the technical effect.
The acting is excellent. Allchin, who directed (and mans the box office counter as well) has chosen his cast wisely and sensibly chosen the course of simplicity in guiding the performances.Ronald Canada as Paul Robeson is particularly fine, imbuing that firebrand with the wonderful intensity he deserves and articulating his words with spitting clarity. Cliff Dewell is moving as the tormented Larry Parks Jr., whose "naming names" kicked off the procession of stool pigeons that followed his 1951 testimony, and J. Robert Powers gives a deft sardonic tone to Arthur Garfield Hays. (Hays, then head of the American Civil Liberties Union, opens his appearance before the committee by caustically suggesting reenactment of a bill that would require "all suspected communists or people we don't like be subjected to a mental test.") G. Smith as '60s radical Richard M. Rhoads, George N. Gatti as Ring Lardner Jr., Donna Sacco as Barbara Sherwood, and Jack Wilbern as Ronald Reaganare also noteworthy.
The portrayal of Reagan is one of the scenes running through the presentation, first showing him in his initial appearance before the committee in 1947 to be the voice of reason, urging HUAC not to outlaw any party "on the basis of ideology." Towards the end, Reagan is quoted from a 1977 speech in which he suggests the reestablishment of a committee like HUAC.
"The American Way" is at times over-academic and the polemics are sometimes rather heavy-handed. But over all it is imaginative, well-performed, provocative and well worth the modest price of admission. It plays this weekend and next Wednesday through Sunday.