Over the past year, many of Denver's most powerful and insightful theater productions have been political in nature, displaying a passion for justice without resorting to propaganda: My Sister in This House, Six Degrees of Separation, Star Fever, Parallel Lives, God's Country, The Interrogation, Oleanna, Death and the Maiden and even the traveling Broadway hit Angels in America.
In a lively CityStage Ensemble production now at Jack's Theatre, David Earl Jones lambastes the militia movement in his scathing, brutal and intermittently raucous Order. And across town at the Denver Civic Theatre is the regional premiere of Jane Martin's powerful Keely and Du, a show deserving of high praise and a longer run. These two productions, so different in purpose, grip the imagination and throttle complacencies with their revelations of chronic social, political and personal evil.
Whether or not you share a particular playwright's political point of view, plays like these stimulate debate. They make you think, they make you uncomfortable, and they very often contribute (in long-term, slow-moving ways) to change. A literate playwright with a point of view, a talented acting team and an intelligent director can place the audience in close human contact with issues that seem remote on TV and in the newspapers.
The disaster whores who covered the Oklahoma bombing, for instance, with all their self-indulgent, plastic TV commentary, revealed nothing about the sensibility that could have committed so heinous a crime. But in Order, playwright Jones not only illustrates this sensibility--its callousness, self-righteousness, blindness, cupidity and ultimate banality--he also manages to expose the kind of suffering that produces it. You won't get that kind of revelation on your network movie of the week.
Order places its six characters in a survivalist bunker with a lot of computer equipment, a picture of Hitler and an American flag hung upside down (these guys have no more design sense than they have conscience). They have been pulling heists around the country, building up a considerable cash flow, some private riches and a whole army. Jim (played with gruff, ingenious wit by Gregory Ward) leads the troops, driving them toward a disastrous stickup that brings the feds down on them. They decide to go out in a blaze of glory. Ah, but glory is not so easily achieved, especially by men who think like cartoons. The final failure is the final joke, and that joke sets the entire action of the play in vivid perspective.
The humorless self-pity and the fiendish cruelty we've seen in these all-male, all-brutish characters is balanced effectively by data about how they came to abandon morality for empty moralizing. They are not monsters. They are human beings lost in fear and malice. Norman (played with just the right insidious fervor by Don Becker) is the brains behind Jim's leadership. Russell is the mindless power, Ed the perseverant, Jerry the savage new blood, and Darrell the expendable bigmouth. They are very, very scary. They are also ridiculous.
Ridiculous, too, are the earnest fundamentalists of Keely and Du, who kidnap Keely from an abortion clinic after her ex-husband beat and raped her. The Operation Rescue-styled group handcuffs its random victim to a bed, intending to see that she brings her fetus to term.
Unlike the miscreants of Order, these people are not violent or even malicious. But lost as they are in a narrow belief system that would exchange the life of the mother (albeit reluctantly) for the unformed life within her, their cruelty arises from their faith that the end justifies the means. They try to mitigate the suffering they are causing in odd little ways that serve only to underscore their fanatical paternalism.
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Keely is cared for by Du, a kindly nurse who has seen too much suffering. Du's religious beliefs are actually tangential to her more intense convictions born of experience: Too many suicidal women have had abortions and then despaired. The power of this masterfully written work lies in playwright Martin's ability to argue both sides with equal eloquence--you feel Keely's extreme desperation acutely, even as you appreciate Du's stand. And from these opposing positions, Martin builds a wholly believable mutual affection between the two women, prisoner and jailer.
Mia Todd as Keely and Sue Buck Resseguie as Du both give stunning performances. The one problem with this production (I saw the world premiere in Louisville, Kentucky) is the reading of the minister's role. Walter should have been played with more genteel fatherliness, more sincere kindness than Bob Leggett gives him. The most riveting, essential argument for Keely's rights lies in the central metaphor of the play--a woman handcuffed to a bed. Making the minister a short-tempered, arrogant jerk undermines the power of that metaphor to refute all he says and all he stands for. The actor should have trusted the material.
Political theater can, of course, descend into self-righteous cant--a secular sermonizing in which the audience is despised, or one group or another is vilified, or the playwright's own agenda supersedes his interest in the truth. Such work preaches to the choir, and only the converted seem moved by the content. Yet, though it may seem extravagant to say so, in these alternately cynical and sentimental times, good political theater is one of the few artistic venues still concerned with the search for meaning, the struggle for justice and the individual's place in the scheme of things.