Monday, March 17, 2008

The Conscientious Objector

photo: Theresa Squire

With Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson as its two main characters, The Keen Company's new play might sound like the kind of thing you were dragged to on your high school field trip. But the absorbing, intimate historical drama, which depicts the two leaders not as one-dimensional heroes but as men struggling mightily with their personal convictions and public responsibilities, is solidly entertaining and finally deeply moving. Not only extensively researched (with a great deal of its dialogue derived from surveillance materials that are now in the public record) but also expertly shaped for dramatic impact, the play's themes have obvious relevance to current-day events. And as we watch Dr. King's growing objections to the Vietnam conflict and we feel the escalating pressures (from Johnson and from civil rights leaders) that tempt him to keep silent about it, it's all too contemporary how even honest, peaceful dissent is demonized as "unpatriotic" in times of war. The playwright (Michael Murphy) creates an arc that convincingly tracks King's fall from popularity as a result of his alignment with the anti-war movement while it also tracks Johnson's growing irritation and impatience: the final scene between the two men is so wrenching it nearly reduced me to tears. I mean no slight at all to the fine ensemble (in which Jonathan Hogan is a stand-out) or to DB Woodside (quietly intense and altogether excellent as King) when I say that John Cullum's superb performance as Lyndon Johnson is practically a Master Class all on its own. There are many compelling reasons to see The Conscientious Objector but if you only need one, Cullum is it.

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