Echoes of Protest

In "Subterranean Homesick Blues" Bob Dylan sings, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" as a metaphor for impending cultural change. Taking their name from the song, the revolutionary Weathermen felt true change came from direct action. In 1969 and the early 70's they set up underground cells, declared war on the U.S., armed themselves with guns, and bombed their targets with improvised explosive devices. In Tom Peterson's timely and promising play, Peace Now, currently at the Midtown International Theater Festival, a Weatherman plans to wreak havoc after secretly infiltrating a group of students who take over a university's administration building. The play spans May 3-5, 1970, and includes a radio report on the infamous Kent State shootings on May 4, when four unarmed people were killed and nine injured.

Despite being one of the "members of a group of protesters who took over our university's administration building," Peterson shies away from labeling his show, which he also directed, a documentary. Indeed, it might be better considered a historical fiction: Peterson weaves personal experience, historical events, and dramatic situations into an intriguing composite of a 70's protest.

Unlike docudramas such as Execution of Justice and Gross Indecency that use discursive approaches, Peace Now is static and linear. The show focuses on the group dynamics among the protesters (and one injured veteran) who find themselves at a crossroads between patriotism and revolution. Peterson draws a convincing set of characters, among which we know there is a Weatherman hiding in wait for the right moment to push the protest into violent extremism.

In an attempt to convey the play's underpinnings and context, Peterson uses certain characters as messenger devices. Joel, a theater major (capably played by Michael C Maronna), gives a speech about the Weathermen and their history. Liberti, a quick-mouthed protester (passionately portrayed by Adrianne Rae-Rodgers), makes a compelling argument citing various wars and how she hates war but still loves the solider.

In some cases, too much information outweighs the dramatic situation, and Peterson's style slips into a prescription for an apathetic generation that faces similar issues but does nothing. Where he excels, however, is in the point-counterpoint arguments between characters. The former soldier Petrovich (a stoic Matthew Decapua) debates flag burning with protest leader Elaine (beautifully played by Cameron Blair), resulting in a richly written and well-acted conflict, one that is playing itself out again in today's courts.

In fact, Peace Now offers a wide range of clashing ideologies that have modern-day echoes. Each character brandishes his or her own form of patriotism, and the bonds or infighting this creates effectively drive the play (and the country) forward. The cast is very talented, with standouts including the impressively understated Frank Harts (as Alan, who supports the Black Panthers) and fresh-faced Kim Shaw (Susan, the doe-eyed freshman).

The set is simple: a desk and a chair and a back wall of windows that the cast uses to egg on the protest and the National Guardsmen accumulating outside. This figuratively places the audience in the administration building with the play's dissidents (a wishful choice perhaps?). One suggestion: If that wall functioned instead as a fourth wall and the actors faced out, it would allow audience to shift from perspective to perspective: from a protester to a National Guardsman, or from a student to an administrator.

With their unresolved dualism, Peterson's crafted dialogues paint an evocative portrait of 1970 and recall a time when dissent and patriotism were not mutually exclusive, as many believe today. With more development, Peace Now could become not only a distant voice from the past but surely an important beacon of the future.

See Peace Now's Web site for the performance schedule at www.peacenowplay.com.

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