On May 17, 1968, Roman Catholic priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan and seven compatriots entered a Selective Service office in Catonsville, Md., removed stacks of 1-A draft files, took them outside and incinerated them with homemade napalm.
Their act of civil disobedience -- and the subsequent trial -- became a landmark in the antiwar movement of the late '60s.
A gifted propagandist who was naturally interested in making sure his message didn't fade in the courtroom, Daniel Berrigan turned the trial transcripts into a play, "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine," and it has been vigorously and effectively revived by the new Potomac Theatre Project at Castle Arts Center.
This "Trial" couldn't be called conventional courtroom drama -- even the term "drama" is questionable. There's no real plot, the characters are mere mouthpieces, and if you spend a moment in the library you will know how it all comes out.
But in the right hands, Daniel Berrigan's adaptation of his group's travail can be a gripping agitprop theater piece, and Potomac Theatre Project has the sensibility and talent to reactivate this relevant bit of recent history.
Berrigan isn't much interested in entertaining us -- he wants us to listen and absorb, and maybe act -- and the wide-ranging, emotionally charged testimony of these nine demonstrators bears chilling similarity to today's situations. Berrigan's playbill comment says that "the words and spirits of a time remembered are summoned into the present."
But they are sometimes summoned in ways he might not have anticipated: As a cornerstone of his self-defense, Berrigan and his fellows point to the correctness of their beliefs as justification. It's a familiar argument for the defense -- we have also heard it invoked to excuse Oliver North, antiabortion bombers and others.
Aside from the eloquence of the nine defendants (which one comes to suspect has been gilded somewhat by Berrigan) one of the most remarkable elements of "Catonsville" is the fairness of the judge and prosecuting attorney. Though intent on holding the defendants responsible to the letter of the law, they afford them remarkable license to speak their numerous grievances, which amount to a condemnation of American foreign policy beyond the Vietnam debacle.
Director James Petosa astutely stages the proceedings, neither shading characters as heroes or villains. Petosa is working with a young cast that seems to burn with idealism, and each performer gradually turns up the jets within the monologues.
Alan Wade anchors the performance with a charismatic portrayal of Daniel Berrigan, and Wade's work hints that Berrigan was as much showman as saint -- it appears that Berrigan recognized that it would be in his best interest to play martyr to assure himself a mention in history books. Laura Giannarelli does fiery justice to Mary Moylan's impassioned testimony. Mary Chalon is a cooling presence as the defense attorney (the actual attorney was William Kunstler, who played himself in a 1971 benefit production of the play). James Beard as the prosecuting attorney is full of barely contained frustration and irritation, and James C. Byrnes radiates authority as the judge. He is seated with the audience, which gets the feeling it is the jury.
This is one evening in the theater that's sure to start a lively discussion in the car on the way home.
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, by Daniel Berrigan. Directed by James Petosa. Setting, Chandler A. Potter; lighting and sound, David R. Zemmels; costumes, Gail Stewart Beach. With James Beard, Matthew Allen Bretz, James C. Byrnes, Mary Chalon, David Conaway, Dana Cormier, Alexander Draper, Robert Emmet, Laura Giannarelli, En-jay Hall, Patrick Kennedy, Richard Thompson, Alan Wade, Solange Weinberger. At Castle Arts Center, alternating with "No End of Blame," through Aug. 30.