The battered metal desks clustered onstage at Abrons Arts Center are like a time capsule from the late 1960s, strewn with file drawers and ancient office lamps. But it’s the profusion of detritus on the desktops that really whisks us to that era: a layer of photos and news clippings — images of the Vietnam War, and of American life back then — so thick that there’s no work surface left.
This is the set (by Peiyi Wong) for Transport Group’s dynamic reimagining of Daniel Berrigan’s “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” and as audience members enter, we’re told we’re welcome to examine it — this messy, stubbornly tangible evidence of who we once were as a nation, and what we were doing in the world.
When the play was new, leaping from Off Broadway to Broadway in 1971, the war was a staple of the news, and the Catonsville Nine were famous. A group of ordinary American men and women, Roman Catholics devoted to social justice, they were so determined to stop the war that in 1968 they took hundreds of draft files from a government office in Catonsville, Md., and burned them.
Berrigan, a Jesuit priest and one of the nine, wrote the play as a prod to conscience, and so it remains in the Transport Group remix, adapted and directed by Jack Cummings III. Like another recent production — “The Courtroom,” based on deportation hearing transcripts and produced by Waterwell — this is theater as civic meditation. Both of these shows enlist the spectators as witnesses, exhorting the Americans in the room to consider what our nation is doing in our name and how, if we oppose that, we intend to stop it.
Presented with the National Asian American Theater Company and performed by three actors of Asian descent, Mr. Cummings’s adaptation is “Catonsville” pared down and reassembled, with ingredients added: from other writings by Berrigan, who died in 2016, and some of his fellow activists; an oral history; a little something from Ho Chi Minh.
The actors (David Huynh, Mia Katigbak and Eunice Wong) enter in coats and hats, regular people stumbling on a fragment of history that they nimbly re-enact, each playing multiple characters, and sometimes sharing them.
The moral weight of the activists’ defense proves more important than our need to know always which character is speaking, though Mr. Cummings’s willingness to blur that clarity does dilute Berrigan’s argument about the power of the individual. It also weakens the play’s emotional potency, which may be why Mr. Cummings pushes too hard with musical underscoring (by Fan Zhang).
The actors don’t take a bow at the end of “The Catonsville Nine,” or at the end of “The Courtroom,” either. They simply leave — though in Mr. Cummings’s production, their exit (stunningly lit by R. Lee Kennedy) is a thing of extraordinary beauty.
By then, Mr. Cummings has given us a spoken epilogue of sorts, filling us in on the lives that the activists, two of them still living, went on to lead. Yet the postscripts imbue some of them with a too-saintly glow. Isn’t the point, after all, that moral action is within reach of any of us?
The Catonsville Nine admitted that they’d done what the government accused them of; their innocence, they insisted, rested on their intent. The immigrant on trial in “The Courtroom” makes a similar argument, though she hadn’t been looking for trouble when she registered to vote, and later cast a ballot.
Directed by Lee Sunday Evans, “The Courtroom” is a verbatim performance of court transcripts (the text is arranged by Arian Moayed) whose brief run at a series of spaces around Manhattan ended on Feb. 1. At stake is the fate of Elizabeth Keathley (Kristin Villanueva), an Illinois woman from the Philippines in danger or being deported for what her lawyer (Linda Powell) argues was a misunderstanding. Elizabeth is, evidently, less fluent in English than she would like to appear.
As the piece follows her from one courtroom (presided over by Ruthie Ann Miles) to another (with Kathleen Chalfant on the bench), what is most palpable is the suspense — how deeply invested the audience becomes in the future of this gentle woman. That urgency is surely something like what “Catonsville” audiences felt while that war dragged on.
Elizabeth’s case begins during the George W. Bush administration and stretches into the Obama years, transcending party and thus more broadly implicating the nation. If you believe her account of a rushed and baffled visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles, where she presented her passport and the man behind the counter asked her anyway if she wanted to register to vote, you aren’t hoping only for her acquittal.
You’re hoping for our own — because if common sense and mercy prevail, at least in this instance we are off the hook.
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine
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The Trial of the Catonsville Nine
Through Feb. 23 at the Playhouse at Abrons Arts Center, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, transportgroup.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
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