Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
When is it right to speak out, to voice one’s opinions? What is the line between free speech and sedition? (Sedition is defined as conduct directed against a government tending toward insurrection but not amounting to treason.) These are the questions underlying “Sedition,” playwright David Wiltse’s drama now enjoying its premiere at the Westport Country Playhouse.
Granted that the play is well-intentioned. Who can argue with an impassioned plea for freedom of speech? But, with each character serving as a narrow, unerring mouthpiece for a particular point of view, it is a didactic piece—a lecture, if you will.
Wiltse sets his play in 1917, just before and after the United States entered the war. He bases “Sedition” on the true story of his own grandfather, formerly a professor of German at the University of Oklahoma. It seems that that Professor Schrag paid a steep price for pacifist views. He was heartily condemned by friends, neighbors, colleagues, and the government itself. In such feverish times, he was seen, despite his assertions of neutrality, as a German sympathizer, possibly a spy. Consequently, with the odds stacked against him, he is called before a government defense council.
As with all Wiltse’s work, “Sedition” is a well-made play—straightforward, to use a good term, or simplistic, to be more critical. That is, there are no complexities to the characters, no nuances in their thoughts. Wiltse is caught up by the play’s issues, which drive the characters, rather than the other way around. Too often, particularly in the second act, interaction gives way to speechifying. And however impassioned these speeches may be, they turn the drama into a schoolroom.
“Sedition” follows the theme carefully, gradually building in intensity as the professor’s problems mount. A government official has arrived on campus to ferret out German sympathizers, and Schrag, who had frequently studied in Germany, is a top suspect. Despite his wife’s pleas and the college chancellor’s warnings, the stubborn man insists upon expressing his views. “It’s a matter of principle,” he insists.
Though Wiltse was motivated to set his play in 1917 because it was family history, it happens that he chose well. It would have been harder to justify a pacifist stance in 1941, when the world was faced with a Hitler on the march. In 1917 America might justifiably have stayed aloof from the scrapping European powers. But Wiltse is really thinking in contemporary times, drawing obvious parallels to the high-handed tactics of our current government.
On the whole, director Tazewell Thompson keeps the momentum going, with swift, smooth scene changes. And he gets creditable performances from his ensemble of six—Chris Sarandon, Mark Shanahan, Bryant Martin, Hannah Cabell, Colin McPhillamy, and Jeffrey DeMunn. Sarandon, as the professor, tends to stumble over his lines initially, but gradually assumes control. He is called upon to be remote and wooden, so one can hardly blame the actor for the limitations of his performance. On the other hand, Colin McPhillamy, as the Chancellor, injects wonderfully sly humor into his role, bringing a much-needed levity to the play’s heavy message. DeMunn, as Megrim, the government official, creates a scary character (an early foreshadowing of Joe McCarthy) playing on the fears and ignorance of the population. And Martin, in his Playhouse acting debut, is most convincing and poignant as the boy eager to serve his country.
In all, “Sedition” cries out for characters of more depth, but is surely commendable in its choice of subject matter.
-- Irene Backalenick
Aug. 7, 2007