The Conscientious Objector
nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
March 14, 2008
"Do you sleep, Reverend?" President Lyndon Johnson asks Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in The Conscientious Objector, a new play by Michael Murphy focusing on King's involvement in the anti-war movement. "No, not really," King replies.
A lesser actor than John Cullum would make the question too dramatic or too inconsequential. Instead Cullum's hoarse voice suggests that President Johnson just wants assurance that he's not the only one who lies awake at night. And a lesser actor than DB Woodside would imbue the response with sarcasm or self-congratulation. But that tone would not be in keeping with the philosophy of director Carl Forsman and of his theatre, the Keen Company, which uniquely strives to produce "sincere plays." And so King's response is honest, matter-of-fact, with a twinge of unaffected weariness.
The Conscientious Objector, now playing at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row, is filled with such lovely moments. Quiet and fleeting, they do not draw attention to themselves. But guided by the patient hand of Forsman, they add up to an experience that is stirring because it is truthful.
Taking place between 1965 and King's last days in 1968, Objector tracks King's movement toward an anti-war stance. It's easy to assume that King, a longtime proponent of pacifism and non-violent protest, would be against the Vietnam War, but Murphy makes clear that he faced serious opposition in deciding to make a public declaration against it. His closest advisors attempt to dissuade him; civil rights leaders, such as Whitney Young, are quick to part ways with him; and politicians, such as Representative John Ashbrook, publicly accuse him of Communist leanings. And then of course, President Johnson is none too pleased with his former ally. Dodging thorny questions from journalists and irate attacks from his friends, King must face the possibility that his hard work for civil rights might unravel due to his anti-war beliefs, and that he might let down or even betray his dedicated followers.
Within the casual conversation and heated debates, Murphy draws unambiguous parallels to the war in Iraq: the lack of an exit strategy, the government's use of wire tapping, even a reference to "terrorists." But the play never feels preachy or polemic because it is not about war, but about a great man faced with a great decision. Indeed, both King and Johnson understand the influence they hold, and treat it with equal parts of joy and remorse. Murphy has painted men who have willingly taken on the weight of the world and who are being crushed.
And you can see that within Woodside's performance—not just in his few outbursts of anger, but in the way he listens to his blustery advisors. His motionless poker face would be perfect were it not for his eyes, which suggest in a squint how much frustration and uncertainty he holds inside. Then when faced with an ornery journalist, his frustration vanishes—he is all poise, tapping into King's confident intensity and magnetism. His magnetism is overshadowed only in the presence of Cullum, who embodies Johnson with a coarseness that is strangely charming. However, this blunt and brusque attitude is just a cover for real insecurity. Forsman has directed this show with an eye towards natural, down-to-earth performances. That sensibility makes the characters' hidden pain quite palpable.
In fact, Forsman extracts natural performances from the rest of his cast as well. As Coretta Scott King, the elegant Rachel Leslie encourages her husband with soothing compassion. Bryan Hicks turns in a wryly funny and fiery rendition of Ralph Abernathy, balanced by Steve Routman as King's unruffled speech writer, Stanley Levison. As James Bevel, the reverend who pushes King towards the anti-war movement, Jimonn Cole hops and glides about the stage, conveying his boisterous passion and an appropriate touch of madness. Even the smaller roles—such as Jonathan Hogan as a stoic J. Edgar Hoover and Chad Carstarphen as an explosive Stokely Carmichael—are handled with finesse.
Objector is an ensemble-based work on stage and off. The play runs fluidly thanks to Josh Bradford's graceful lighting design and Daniel Baker's sound design with unobtrusive, delicate music. Set designer Beowulf Boritt spreads a painted, black-and-white close-up of the American flag across the back wall. Four enormous white stars dominate the space and the stripes bleed out onto the stage. Just as the set magnifies a section of the flag, The Conscientious Objector magnifies a part of American history in an emotional and relevant way.