NEW BRUNSWICK,NJ - A riveting, timely play is now on view at George Street Playhouse, exploring the conflict between Senators Margaret Chase Smith and Joseph McCarthy.
With the red scare taking place in the U.S., Smith became concerned that McCarthy had created an atmosphere of fear, where citizens were afraid to speak out. They might be labeled Communists or Fascists. Countless careers and lives were ruined during the decade of the 1950s.
Smith’s declaration of conscience cost her political support, but paved the way and planted seeds of doubt about McCarthy’s tactics. Yet he still ranted and raved on for several years before taking on the armed services. He was finally put down by Attorney Joseph Welch who demanded on television, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Harriet Harris gives a formidable performance as Chase Smith, the first woman to hold seats in the House of Representatives and later the Senate. Her speech condemning McCarthy refers to the Four Horses of Calumny: fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear. As senator from the state of Maine, Smith was ultimately honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush in 1989.
Lee Sellars as Joe McCarthy is equally strong and convincing. His portrayal clearly defines his lust for power and eventual downfall in an alcoholic haze. Cathryn Wake as his assistant and later wife, Jean Kerr, also delivers a smooth, flawless performance. We can clearly see the sexism and attitudes that, more than 60 years later, resulted in the #metoo movement.
Mark Junek as Smith’s assistant, William Lewis, Jr., is sympathetic and believable, unveiling the attitudes at the time towards homosexuality and an unforgiving national attitude.
Playwright Joe DiPietro has given us an experience that is particularly relevant, in all its political greed, avoidance of truth and facts in favor of accusations, and the corrupting influence of those in power. The McCarthy era did plenty of damage through the House Un-American Activities Committee before the senator’s corruption was exposed. DiPietro has a host of Tony, Drama Desk ad Outer Critic Circle awards with such plays as “Nice Work if You Can Get It” and “Memphis.” At George Street, his work has included “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me,” “Clever Little Lies” and a host of others.
Artistic Director David Saint directed this taut, compelling story that rings true in today’s super charged political atmosphere. A stunning, streamlined set conveys the sense of a government building, offices and platforms. Joe Saint’s lighting and Scott Killian’s original music enhance the sense of urgency.
“Conscience” continues at George Street’s newly named Arthur LaurentsTheatre through March 29. (Laurents himself had been blacklisted during the McCarthy period.) This is a play not to be missed. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or visit GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org.