The times, they stay the same. For thirty long and lonely years the brilliant Alison Moulton has lived the bleak, unchanging life of a maximum security prison inmate. Her crime: lending a hand – and possibly some supplies – to her young activist friends for an anti-war bombing in downtown New York, which resulted in the death of a police officer who shouldn’t have been there, but was nevertheless.
Whether the bomb was meant as a symbol or an actual weapon remains to be hotly debated; Alison (Deborah Hazlett) always has a grave shadow of culpability in her eye even as she protests fervently against a country which has so misunderstood her ideals. One thing’s for sure though: this intellectual freight train of a drama by Willy Holtzman’s is just as smartly constructed and impeccably timed as any explosive that group of radicals once made in their basements.
Of course the pen is mightier than the sword, but rarely has it been applied with so bladed an edge and such a keen urge to dissect. Like many of the best shows produced at Theater J, Something You Did is an unabashed examination of moral ambiguity and sociopolitical contention, acted with brains and zeal by a pitch-perfect cast. Is it reprehensible to grant Alison an early parole for her bad decisions, or do we forgive her her sins after decades of penitence? Should domestic terrorists ever be pardoned? No question raised in this piece brings an easy answer, but we’re in great company as we try to feel out the fault lines.
It’s the kind of company Alison’s been deprived of for years, and her desire to reengage with her native democracy is unequivocal. “If I ever get back to this country, it will be with an immigrant’s heart,” she insists. Even since childhood, raised in good schools by prominent leftist parents (Holtzman has based Alison in part on real-life activist Kathy Boudin, one of the architects of the Weather Underground movement) political philosophy has always run deep. But the possibility of release – and a return home to the simple beauties of life – overpowers all else.
The set, by Luciana Stecconi, is a place of meetings: the prison library, paved with squeaky-clean white tile and fluorescent light, through which Alison paces during her talks with members of the outside world, reorganizing books with an almost maternal touch. Surveying her through the bars is Uneeq (Lolita-Marie), a stern but affectionate security officer whose slow-building friendship with Alison remains, like the rest if the play, elegantly composed and surprisingly understated. At the table, imparting both humor and legal counsel, is her father’s one-time law partner Arthur (Norman Aronovic, with a mischievous grin), whose snappy suggestions and glib retorts help keep Alison humble.
But the two showdowns at the heart of the play aren’t so friendly. First, against Arthur’s advice, Alison arranges a meeting with Lenora (Aakhu Freeman), the daughter of the police officer slain that fateful day. Second, against Alison’s advice, Arthur arranges a meeting for her with Gene Biddle (Rick Foucheux), a conservative media icon determined to see her remain incarcerated. Naturally, the personal meeting grows awfully political (how can Alison’s old ideologies reconcile with the words of a bereaved daughter?) and the political standoff hits a personal note once we learn that Gene and Alison used to share friends, causes, and possibly something more. Gene may be billed as an ultra-conservative, but really he’s something of a liberal fantasy – a right-wing pundit who feels suffocated by his fame and affluence, and who yearns to re-engage with the progressive urges of his youth on an intellectual level. Right about here is where any comparisons of Gene to the Glenn Beck camp fall apart; he’s far more wary of extremism, and his contempt for Alison is rooted in one salient point: her politics have killed an innocent man.
We’ve heard versions of this tale before. Something You Did is far from the first play this decade – or even this year – to run a diagnostic on the health of the modern American legal system and news media. But rarely is such a thing pulled off with so little bluster. For such topical material, very few lines spoken sound like headlines (no small feat) and the real dramatic work happens, as it always should, less in the text than in the performers’ live faces and bodies, in touching and unexpected ways. The language is eloquent without growing grandiose, sharply pointed but shy of pedantic, and deeply upsetting without reaching for maudlin.
Characters have much to pity and grieve, but – here’s the miracle – they listen as much as they speak. It’s through their genuine engagement with each other that we really listen too. And, by the end, our brains are ringing like symphonic instruments. Could we ask for a more perfect image of American discourse? “I keep expecting humans to be humane,” Alison sighs. Pass the sign-up sheet.
Something You Did
By Willy Holtzman
Directed by Eleanor Holdridge
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Something You Did runs thru Oct 3, 2010.
Click here for details, directions and tickets.
SOMETHING YOU DID