Private Manning Goes to Washington is the title of the play within this play that’s being written by two young men about this topical situation.
The real life Internet hacktivist and Reddit developer Aaron Swartz contrives to have his fictional childhood friend Billy, who is a theater teacher of prisoners, to collaborate on a play about Bradley Manning in order to galvanize public opinion in favor of his clemency. During the moving climax, they act out the roles of Manning confronting President Barack Obama.
Manning is a United States Army soldier who was an intelligence analyst stationed in Iraq. He leaked hundreds of thousands of classified intelligence documents to WikiLeaks in 2010, when he was 22 years old. He was convicted of various charges and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. By the time of his conviction, Manning had disclosed that he was transgender and would thereafter be known as Chelsea Manning.
Playwright Stan Richardson very skillfully blends the facts of the case with dramatic license to create an entertaining and provocative scenario. Treason versus conscience is evenhandedly explored. At times the play is overly self-conscious but is ultimately compelling.
Bug-eyed, paunchy and highly animated, E. James Ford is marvelously engaging as Billy. Shaggy haired Matt Steiner with his breezy, improvisational delivery offers a winning portrait of youthful idealism as Aaron. They have tremendous chemistry and their naturalness energizes this often-polemical material.
A prominent feature of the production is Paul Hudson’s environmental scenic design. The playing area is on the lower level of a luxury apartment where the audience is offered drinks in a living room before the show begins.
Brightly lit hallways, with white sheets on the walls, the ground strewn with manila file folders lead to the actual theater. Small rows of chairs of various configurations face the stage. Desk lamps, numerous file boxes, a paper shredder, and more manila folders adorn the playing area.
An overhead projector displays appropriate images artfully created by Thomas Kavanagh onto a wall. Mr. Hudson has provided a meticulously detailed and immersive landscape for the performers and the audience. Hudson also designed the mostly stark but suitably varying lighting that dramatically highlights the events.
Mr. Richardson and Mr. Steiner co-directed the production. Their inspired staging has the two actors all over the apartment, including the bathroom and an alcove area. The audience is able to follow along no matter where they’re seated. This adds liveliness and the semblance of reality. Richardson’s sound design includes a perfectly mixed selection of pop songs that comment on the story.
This play is produced by the theater company The Representatives. They present site-specific, “radically intimate,” unconventional works often on controversial subjects. Richardson and Steiner are the company’s artistic directors.
The play’s title echoes Frank Capra’s classic 1939 political film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. James Stewart played a naïve boy’s club leader chosen by a state governor to fill the seat of a deceased U.S. senator. After taking office, his altruism clashes with the practicality and corruption of those in power.
“You all think I’m licked. Well I’m not licked. And I’m gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause…Somebody will listen to me,” says Stewart during his memorable filibuster.
Private Manning Goes To Washington is not as monumental or as morally simple, but it is in that spirit of the idealistic individual clashing with authority. Its highly theatricalized mixture of documentary and drama is quite effective.
Private Manning Goes to Washington (extended through December 18, 2016)
The Studio@at 345, 345 West 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 1-800-838-3006 or visit http://www.therepresentatives.org
Running time: 65 minutes with no intermission