nytheatre.com review by Scott Mendelsohn
December 9, 2005
Myopia has characterized much of our country’s public discourse on terrorism since the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of 2001. The media initially focused on the immediate facts of the events, and now we argue about the United States’ military response elsewhere, or the ethics of local security measures like random bag searches. The empathy required to understand the motives behind the violence is lost to stereotyping and judgment. Rarely do we allow the history of political violence—political protests, assassinations, race riots, corruption by police and judicial systems—to speak to the causes and conditions that move individuals to breech the bonds of civility into violence. In his play Haymarket, Zayd Dohrn has identified one such incident from our country’s past—the 1886 bombing in Chicago’s Haymarket Square of a labor protest—and bravely imagines the trauma of the event, as well as the unheard conversations of those who advocate violence in the struggle for reform. The production may not do the themes justice; nonetheless, the play makes its strengths known.
Haymarket tells the story of Albert and Lucy Parsons, two anarchists who were accused of involvement with the bombing. The rally where the incident occurred was organized around a goal that Mr. & Mrs. Parsons believed in and fought for: the eight-hour workday. When the police came to disperse the crowd, an unknown assailant threw a dynamite bomb into the square, killing or wounding eight policemen and several civilians. In response, several prominent anarchists were indicted and executed in one of the earliest “red scares” in this country.
The script’s real strength is its focus on the individuals involved. By probing the raw trauma of and the individual motives behind the historical event, Dohrn’s play raises plenty of essential and timeless questions. Should we temper our judgment if violence is intended to open the door for substantive reform? We now take for granted the eight-hour workday these men died for; can we say that their martyrdom did not bear fruit? We arm our police in the name of public and economic order—does this make their violence different from the terrorists? Albert Parsons is written as a man torn between love for his family, his own frailty in the face of horrific events, and a real belief that fighting the violence of capitalist industrialism against its workers may require violence as an effective response. By the end of the play, we may question the rightness of his choices, but not the integrity of the man who struggles to engage the difficult issues of his time.
Dohrn frames this story as visions or recollections of the Parsons' daughter. Some years after the trials, Lucy Parsons admits her daughter, also named Lucy, to a mental asylum. While efficiently giving shape to the play, this frame adds little to the story. It promises some insight into the elder Lucy Parsons as the driving force of her husband’s martyrdom but she never emerges as a decisive player in the story. By having the same actress play mother and daughter, both Lucys are sapped of their fullness as characters.
Beyond the Parsons’ story, though, the more thoroughly developed story within the play concerns a policeman who has survived the attack. His proximity to the bomb has caused him to lose his hearing. When he goes to the hospital to seek treatment, he befriends a nurse whose brother was killed in the attack. A romance sprouts. But the nurse and her family have been so emotionally traumatized by the attack that, whatever her feelings for the officer, she cannot bring herself to embrace this man who so reminds her of her dead brother. Officer Spierling departs, crushed.
Finally, in the climactic scene of the play, Lucy Parsons must ask a police guard for the favor of seeing her husband before he is executed. In a savvy and effective piece of play design, that guard turns out to be Spierling. We know him to be an ordinary man, no less a cog than the laborers for whom the Parsons have so passionately advocated, and one who has suffered in this struggle as much as the Parsons. As Lucy cries to see her husband, the deaf cop just stands there and tells her, “He can’t hear you.” The din of the violence has deafened not only his hearing, but also his capacity for empathy. In fighting for a social good, both policeman and anarchist are unable to express their capacity for love.
I am moved and encouraged that Dohrn’s compassion brings the play to a scene that dramatizes what feels like a genuine divide between social order and the chaos that is part of its change. Unfortunately, the production fails to fulfill it. The actors play the scenes at such a slow pace that it borders on the absurd. Robert Saxner’s staging is clear and sometimes clever, but the actors rarely speak with any urgency. It is quite jarring when Haddon Givens Kime’s energetic, evocative scene-change music interrupts the flatness of the scene it follows. Judson Jones is excellent as Officer Spierling and his scenes with Birgit Huppuch as Nurse Barrett are by far the most effective. Jones’s silences and stammers are full and tender, and genuinely moving, and Huppuch displays an openness and willingness to engage that makes her appealing. But their scenes are the exception. I ached for the cast to show the passion that led Lucy Parsons to call her husband home to die, and he to respond. Perhaps it is a sign of our own anesthetized time that the cast, for all its hard work and intelligence, fails to tap into the incendiary quality that inspired the events of the play.