The transcript of their resulting trial was dramatized by defendant Father Daniel Berrigan and first produced by Gordon Davidson at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1970, then moved to Off Broadway by the Phoenix Theatre, and later to Broadway’s Lyceum Theater for a brief run in 1971, before being turned into a film. The 1970 play was originally adapted by playwright Saul Levitt (who previously turned the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Andersonville into a successful trial play) from Berrigan’s free verse version based exclusively on the trial transcript. Not seen in New York in 30 years, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine has been reimagined in a new version making use of additional sources by Jack Cummings III, artistic director of the innovative Transport Group theater company. A powerful experience, the revival proves to be a provocative investigation of what a citizen should do when he or she feels that the government is engaged in immoral actions.
Like Transport Group’s last production, Renascence, the play takes place on the stage of the Abrons Arts Center which has been turned into a government office by set designer Peiyi Wong with metal desks and file cabinets. The audience sits on all four sides of the playing area no more than three feet from the set on any side. With the desks literally piled high and hidden from view by Vietnam War Era memorabilia like magazines, photographs, books and record albums, the audience is invited to examine the display before the play begins. The confined and claustrophobic setting and lighting of just the desks makes for a very intense experience.
Three people (David Huynh, Mia Katigbak and Eunice Wong) appear dressed in street clothes (Peiyi Wong, designer) just as did the original Catonsville Nine. They begin by addressing the Friends of the Catonsville Area Library Oral History Program in 1972 four years later, with Katigbak taking the role of Mary Murphy, who was Chief Clerk of the Catonsville Draft Board, who recounts her experiences on May 17, 1968, with Nuynh and Wong alternating in the role of the interviewer. From there, the three reenact the trial of the Catonsville Nine which began on October 7, 1968 using the court record, as well as giving background information about the defendants and their future lives. At times, they alternate as defendants and court representatives; at others they take turns giving the testimony of a single person. It ought not to work, but the moral indignation of the defendants and their varying life stories as humanitarians and witnesses to atrocities worldwide become very effective and disturbing.
The nine that they portray were all devout Catholic activists: Father Daniel Berrrigan, a Jesuit priest and poet: his brother, Father Philip Berrigan, a Josephite priest, teacher and civil rights activist; David Darst, a Harvard scholar who taught as a Christian Brother; John Hogan, a former Maryknoll brother; Thomas Lewis, an artist who taught in inner city schools and Catholic colleges; Marjorie Melville, a former Maryknoll nun; her husband, Thomas Melville, a former Maryknoll priest; George Mische who had worked with delinquent youth; and Mary Moylan, a nurse.
Their testimony as to what they have experienced in their humanitarian work is riveting. Their deeply held beliefs about the immorality of an undeclared war in a democracy is soul searching. They speak of going to the Secretary of State as an Interfaith Peace Mission only to be told that “it wasn’t his job to deal with moral matters.” When they approached the American military as to the morality of the Vietnam War and dropping of napalm, there was no response. The Melvilles had witnessed American atrocities committed in Guatemala in the name of big business while they were there as missionaries. Nurse Moylan saw first-hand the American bombing in Uganda where she was working as a nurse-midwife. Aside from Katigbak’s emotional opening testimony as Chief Clerk Mrs. Murphy, the court record is delivered by all three actors in a matter-of-fact tone of voice that makes the piling up of the details that much more forceful and compelling. This version of the play also fills us in as to what happened to each of the defendants after the trial and in the rest of their lives.
As the actors remain around the rectangular block of desks throughout the play, R. Lee Kennedy’s atmospheric and evocative lighting becomes almost another character. The final moments are a tour de force of artistic theatricality and take your breath away. Fan Zhang’s sound design (including popular songs of the period and earlier) and original music is another memorable part of Cummings’ production. Transport Group’s revival of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine is a powerful reminder of a time when Americans were not simply willing to accept the status quo and were willing to take matters into their own hands, despite the consequences.
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (through February 23, 2019)
Transport Group, in partnership with The National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO)
Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, in Manhattan
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.transportgroup.org