History lesson

2nd Story’s revealing Catonsville Nine
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  June 7, 2006

Consider the rule of law and the rule of conscience. Without the former, powerful interests see to it that only might makes right. Without the latter, they’re blind.

In 1968, peace activists opposing the Vietnam War marched into a Maryland Selective Service draft board office, removed the records of several hundred candidates who were rated 1-A, and burned the files outside with homemade napalm. Then they waited around for 15 minutes so the police would arrest them.

Daniel Berrigan’s The Trial of the Catonsville Nine is drawn entirely from the transcript of the trial that convicted the priest and his Catholic co-conspirators. (The play earned enough appreciation to rate a 1972 Tony nomination.) The presentation at 2nd Story Theatre (through June 18) is a gripping reality show, demonstrating how dramatic actual events can be, even when they’re making you think as well as feel.

What keeps the play from being a series of polemical rants is its storytelling structure and series of vignettes. The nine relate how their lives brought them to break the law, and how they could not live with themselves if they stood by while boys were unjustly sent to kill and be killed. The accounts tend to be vivid and thought-provoking, since most of the defendants are remarkably articulate.

Daniel’s priest brother Philip (Jim Sullivan) speaks of having been “an enthusiastic participant in World War II.” David Darst (Ed Shea) compares their action to crying out when seeing a crime underway. He points out that Jesus could have been charged with assault and battery for driving the moneylenders out of the temple. Tom Lewis (Vince Petronio) calls the 371 draft files they burned “potential death certificates.” George Mische (Joe Henderson) talks about being a negotiator for the government’s Alliance for Progress in Latin America, eager to help but eventually disillusioned by US support of dictatorships.

Catonsville is being staged as a dramatic reading instead of the blocked-out and costumed regular production that its director, Ed Shea, originally scheduled for the season. Shea realized that to stage the play would require forcing a lot of unnatural movement for a courtroom, which he felt would distract from the words. A trial is, after all, a lot of people standing around talking.

Rest assured that little dramatic impact is lost. These 2nd Story actors know very well which passages are highly charged enough to require memorization, so they can lower the script when needed. In fact, this production is a fascinating lesson in how quickly we can accept scripts in hand as just another stage convention, like seeing through the fourth wall. Good acting does the trick, as listeners learned in the age of radio plays.

Catonsville was on a continuum of their protest actions. Unusually harsh sentences of 6-1/2 years, for pouring blood on draft records, had already been handed down to two of the defendants, Tom Lewis and Philip Berrigan.

The sympathetic judge (Tom Oakes) tells the nine, “I am not questioning the morality of what you did.” However conciliatory that sounds, the statement seals their fate. All that is left for the jury to base a judgment on is the law, which the nine admitted breaking. While the defendants and their lawyer (Eric Behr) try to convince the judge to establish a precedent and allow them to challenge the legitimacy of the war, he politely informs them that that is not what a courtroom is for.

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