Kunstler, by Jeffrey Sweet. Directed by Meagen Fay. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Hurrah. The system works. This time. "
Conviction is a word with many meanings. If you are found guilty of a crime, any crime at all, the result of the trial is your conviction by the system. If you firmly believe in a goal you are a person of conviction. My brother has a rock band made up of daytime lawyers and they call themselves Conviction. But who and what are you if your sense of conviction runs really deep? If you find yourself confirmed in your choices about those things going on around you and around the world you inhabit and you make the choice to take a stand, defend the rights of people to act on their honest beliefs than you are truly devoted to your convictions. Attorney William Kunstler didn't start out as that man, but he became the enduring symbol of a man who would not betray his convictions. He went to jail for maintaining those strong ties to his convictions. He died after being celebrated for behaving as he though he should. But he's back, on stage at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage in Pittsfield, in the clearly convicted body, mind and voice of actor Jeff McCarthy.
This is not your usual one-man show about a famous figure. I often have trouble with one-person plays although in recent years I've seen some very good ones. The situation here is unusual. Kunstler has been invited to give a talk to law students at a New York City college, probably Columbia University, and his recent cases, controversial in the extreme, have whipped up a furious crowd that pickets the lecture hall. Even so, there are attendees who want to hear this man. That is the role we, in the Barrington audience, play. The man who has invited Kunstler to speak is not present but his young associate, a black law student who has her own reservations about this guest speaker, is there to assist him. Together they review his cases in the context of his life-experience and together they become allies against the protestors although they never agree completely with one another. He is more generous but she is more pliant. It's a legally binding marriage of minds.
Jeffrey Sweet's play presents an even-handed picture of this man, a unique figure in his time and a historically fascinating one. He defended the Freedom Riders who wanted to integrate a southern soda fountain. He defended the Chicago Seven including Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. He defended the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee. He was a major player in the aftermath of the Attica Prison riot. He was, and still is, a dynamic figure in the history of America's second war for independence in the 1960s and 1970s. Sweet gives him a living voice as he addresses the past and McCarthy gives him the dynamics he richly deserves.
McCarthy has been playing this role for a while now, most recentely in New York City and it appears he will be playing it for a good while longer. He has the attitude right and the look of a man on the brink of personal disaster right. He has Kunstler's sense in incentive nailed. And convition - man, does he present conviction not as an attitude but as a responsibility. This is the role of a lifetime for this actor and it might just put the memory of many of his other performances well in the shade. This is a must-experience performance, so natural and so real it is as though he is channelling the man he portrays on the stage, and that is almost realized by the end of the play.
Jeff McCarthy as William Kunstler; photo: Carol Rosegg
Erin Roche plays Kerry Nicholas
Opposite him and almost never out of sight is law student Kerry Nicholas played by Erin Roché. Sweet has made this young woman a possessor of her own distinct convictions and they have created a dichotomy: a woman doing what is expected of her on the one hand and a woman whose beliefs, on the other hand, make doing her duty difficult. Roché plays both sides of Kerry with equal conviction and that makes for a fascinating character. Not for a single moment does she falter while deciding which part of her is the right part. She does this so subtly and so well that without even realizing it we are aching to be on her side no matter how she chooses to behave. This is lovely acting and, not knowing this young actress, I am hoping to find her again and again to see how she makes other parts take on reality.
Meagen Fay had directed this play with an eye to movement. The show is never stagnant, never slow, but moves forward, sideward and even backward as Kunstler relates his personal takes on his trials, and his errors. Fay works here on an unconventional set designed by James J. Fenton with the largely focused lighting by Betsy Adams. Unlike other two-person plays where one character is seemingly less important than the other, this production keeps us in the immediate, always aware of Kerry's reaction to Kunstler's words. It is the director and her two designers who make this happen and without it the play would be less interesting. We know from the outset that this woman is only here because she has to be and to watch her growth through his educational prompting is a lovely thing. They are costumed simply and practically by Elivia Bovenzi. Will Severin has provided excellent sound design, keeping us aware of where we are and when, and he has also composed a few dynamic themes that move the play along.
Barrington Stage Company has started its summer season with a clear winner, a political drama with the heart of a situation comedy about trust and love and experience, those things that make up true conviction. Don't worry about being uncomfortable about politics, but keep in mind that as things move forward time tends to stand still or to throw you a bit backwards. It's a very worthwhile trip.
Kunstler plays on the St. Germain Stage at Barrington Stage Company's Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA through June 10. For information and tickets go on line at www.barringtonstageco.org or call 413-236-8888.