By Daniel Berrigan; Directed by Jack Cummings III
Produced by Transport Group
Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 2.23.19
Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street
by Eleanor J. Bader on 2.6.19
L-R: David Huynh, Eunice Wong, and Mia Katigbak in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: A brilliant revival of an always timely play that asks what it means to actively affirm human life and human dignity.
When poet Mary Oliver died last month, a line from one of her poems went viral: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” it asked. It’s an important question, one that The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, a 1971 play by Jesuit priest/poet/activist Daniel Berrigan, does not hesitate to answer. In Berrigan’s worldview, civil disobedience was an imperative. As he saw it, using one’s body in protest was an act of piety, a way to move past talk and live the Gospel.
His play, an account of civil disobedience carried out by a group of Catholic anti-war activists dubbed the Catonsville Nine, describes their efforts to stop the Vietnam War and promote a peaceful resolution to the conflict. But the play does more than this. As the Nine's history unfolds, it asks the audience to parse a bigger and more universal question: is it ever necessary to turn civilians into combatants and put them in harm’s way?
Indeed, even before the play begins this issue becomes resonant. As ushers guide ticket holders to their seats—hard wooden pews that surround a number of battered metal desks—they can peruse photos, news accounts, magazine covers, and typewritten notes about various aspects of the Vietnam War that are resting on the tabletops. These documents can’t be touched, but the ushers urge the audience to look at the images before the production begins. This creates a somber and concrete reminder, in case we've romanticized armed conflict, that war always means death, destruction, and pain.
The play utilizes actual court transcripts and weaves snippets of testimony from the seven men and two women who the government charged with destroying 278 military records at the Catonsville Draft Board on May 17, 1968. As the one-act trial gets underway, the defendants present testimony about their well-coordinated protest. In this iteration, three actors—David Huynh, Mia Katigbak, and Eunice Wong—play multiple gender-bending roles, including not only the nine defendants, but Draft Board employees, numerous jurors, and the judge.
The acting is stellar and it’s compelling to hear Berrigan tell the court that the group’s goal was ”to raise an outcry against a crime, a wanton slaughter, to halt the machine of death.” What’s more, as each of his colleagues affirms, their desire to end the conflict and promote human rights at home and abroad goaded them into action.
That said, as the play proceeds, it becomes obvious that the defendants expected to be found guilty and sentenced to federal prison; in fact, after burning the stolen military documents, the activists waited in the Draft Board parking lot for the police to arrive. Their aim was not to evade jail but rather to galvanize public opinion against the war and inspire others to act, in whatever ways they could, to oppose militarism, oppression, and violations of human rights.
At a talk-back after the play, one of Daniel Berrigan’s attorneys, Joseph Cosgrove, described his former client as a man who “could turn a courtroom into a cathedral.” That ability is showcased in The Trial of The Catonsville Nine. Thanks to a well-honed script, the actors are able to convey a sense of political urgency without lapsing into rhetoric or making the audience feel guilty for not doing enough. The end result is inspiring, uplifting, and powerful.
Thanks to fantastic lighting design by R. Lee Kennedy, riveting sound design by Fan Zhang, and excellent overall direction by Jack Cummings III, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine is much more than a nostalgic look back. Fifty-one years after the fact, it remains a potent illustration of what it means to pray with our feet. Berrigan and his co-defendants lived their wild and precious lives to the fullest. Might we follow their example?
(The Trial of the Catonsville Nine plays at the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, through February 23, 2019. The running time is 85 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30; Sundays at 3. Tickets are $60 and are available by calling 212-598-0400 or at transportgroup.org.)
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine is by Daniel Berrigan. Directed by Jack Cummings III. Dramaturg is Kristina Corcoran Williams. Scenic and Costume Design by Peiyi Wong. Lighting Design by R. Lee Kennedy. Sound Design by Fan Zhang. Stage Manager is Theresa Flanagan. Assistant Stage Manager is Jared Oberholtzer. Assistant Directors are Marykate Glenn and Kevin Paley.
The cast is David Huynh, Mia Katigbak, and Eunice Wong.