Update about this Review of Conscience: A friend and I went to see Conscience on March 7, 2020. The theater was pretty well filled except for an empty seat here and there. We thoroughly enjoyed the production. I looked forward to writing this review to share with my readers that a wonderful new play was running. However, as this review prepared for publication, the Coronavirus outbreak came into full focus.
Little did I realize how quickly life was going to change. That afternoon my friend and I enjoyed on March 7th was to be the last of its kind for the foreseeable future. Although it was scheduled to run through March 29, George Street Playhouse issued a statement of cancellation on their website for Conscience out of concern for the effects of the COVID-19.
For me, life got a little busy preparing for the “new normal,” so the publication of this review went on the back burner. But this show deserves all that it should have had if the run had continued. So even though it is late, here is my review.
Long before there was a Nancy Pelosi or a Hillary Clinton, there was an exceptional woman who made headlines on Capital Hill. She holds the distinction of being the first woman to serve in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. That woman, who came from the state of Maine, was Margaret Chase Smith. As a Senator, she was the first to come out publicly against Senator Joseph McCarthy. Conscience is the play that tells her story of that ground breaking speech, how it came to be, and what happened afterwards.
Running now through March 29, 2020 at George Street Playhouse, Conscience is a dramatic representation of the years between the late 1940’s and the early 1950’s. The production is absolutely superb. Written by Joe DiPietro, the play works well on the Arthur Laurents Theater’s large stage. The set is has an openness about it that allows the audience to feel like they are in several different locations of the Capital Buildings. The distances on the stage allow the characters to move into their own office areas and even to simulate rides on the train used to transport Congress members between locations on the Hill.
The Story of Two Senators
The title Conscience comes from the famous speech Senator Margaret Chase Smith gave in 1950. Over the years, “Declaration of Conscience” holds up as a tribute to an early attempt to gain factual information from Senator Joseph McCarthy. The play traces major encounters between Senator Smith and Senator McCarthy leading to that speech and afterwards as well.
The play shows the struggles Smith overcame to get seated on Congressional Committees, especially the one chaired by McCarthy. At first, she was intrigued about his accusations as he pursued an agenda to uncover “card carrying members of the Communist party” in the United States. However, as she asked him for proof of his accusations and none came, Senator Smith began to see beyond his facade.
Then came a very significant speech McCarthy gave in Wheeling, West Virginia. In the speech, he claimed to have the names of a number of card-carrying Communists who worked in the State Department. After this speech, Senator Smith composed and delivered her “Declaration of Conscience” speech. Although he appeared to be on an unstoppable mission, Senator Smith declared, “I should have spoken up sooner.”
Support for her speech was extremely limited. At times afterwards, she was alone except for her staff and Congressional Aide William Lewis Jr. Eventually, some support for her came but it was deafened by McCarthy’s actions. She lost her seat on the Committee chaired by McCarthy and ironically, it went to Richard Nixon.
Strong Characters Make the Play Memorable
Director David Saint paces this show so that each character presents their outstanding qualities, both positive and negative, during critical points in the play. Playing the role of Margaret Chase Smith is the renowned actress Harriet Harris. Ms. Harris does an outstanding job showing the stress that Smith experiences both as a new Senator and a woman in that role. The tension is evident as she approaches McCarthy about committee assignments. Her recognition of the direction he is moving in after the Wheeling speech shows her strength developing. But some of the most shocking moments are when McCarthy tells what he knows about her late husband’s indiscretions. Senator Smith does not acknowledge the truth of the statements until later in the play when they become heartbreaking to hear.
Lee Sellars is remarkable in the role of Senator Joseph McCarthy. He holds back nothing in his portrayal of the man who caused the downfall of many of that period. But what comes through so clearly is the flawed character McCarthy had. He was a raging alcoholic who had a narcissistic need to be recognized no matter what the price. Several scenes between Sellers and Harris are explosive. These scenes highlight not only Smith’s strength but also the insanity with which McCarthy operated.
Playing the role of Mark Junek, is William Lewis Jr. Mr. Lewis does a fine job portraying Junek as a man of character and dignity. Junek carries the burden of working for the inexperienced Senator Smith while hiding his homosexual life style. His encounter with Senator McCarthy is wrought with tension as nasty comments come his way. Mr. Lewis’ portrayal hits the right attitudes needed to make it believable.
Cathryn Wake plays Jean Kerr, the woman who works for McCarthy and eventually becomes his wife. Wake does a phenomenal job portraying a woman very much in love with her boss. Her behavior becomes a mirror of some the nasty traits McCarthy used to subdue people. She belittles people in hopes of making him look better. Think “stand by your man” as Ms. Wake puts an interesting spin on the Jean Kerr character.
This Play Needs to Go On Again
Those who were not alive during this time period might think this is a fantasy or exaggeration. But the incorporation of powerful facts by playwright DiPietro makes Conscience a must see event. The story line traces the beginnings and eventual downfall of McCarthy. However, the story line is only one aspect of what makes Conscience such a moving play. Long after you see this play, the acting and intense look at the characters will remain with you.
After the new phenomenon of Social Distancing becomes a memory, let’s look for this play to come back out live, onstage.
ALL PHOTOS BY T. CHARLES ERICKSON
Let's Go to the Theater helps people learn more about about live theater and develop appreciation for this art form. Karen M. Nowosad is the founder of the site. The enjoyment Karen gets from going to the theater is something she wants to share with others.