by Ruth Ross
Elected to the United States Senate in 1949—after serving in the House of Representatives for four terms years—Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith was a quiet, moderate Republican backbencher, a conservative on social issues—that is, until a crisis of conscience drove her to risk her colleagues’ condemnation and her budding career as an American legislator. (Above: Mark Junek, Harriet Harris, Cathryn Wake and Lee Sellars)
This ethical and moral crisis is the topic of Tony Award-winning playwright Joe DiPietro’s stunning, elegant drama, aptly named Conscience, now receiving its world premiere at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.
When fellow Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy (Wisconsin) claimed that 205 members of Congress were Communists, Sen. Smith was galvanized into giving a speech in the well of the Senate chambers decrying his efforts to instill doubt and divide the country. Ironically, at this time during the Cold War, Smith was sympathetic toward rooting out Communist corruption in American politics, but she was put off by his slash-and-burn tactics and his lack of concrete evidence.
DiPietro has created two terrific adversaries to do “battle for the soul of America.” Smith is a dignified proto-feminist; as the only woman in the Senate, she makes sure to be knowledgeable, to enter a room last (so the men don’t rise to greet her) and to keep a cool head. Nevertheless, McCarthy’s coarse vulgarity makes her gorge rise: “The more you get to know him, the more you dislike him.” She considers him a boorish buffoon, a clown, all insults she utters in a patrician-sounding New England accent.
In contrast, McCarthy is a nasty, attention-seeking drunk, an anti-Semite and liar, apt to fudge his military record, along with “making things up on the spot and uttering them with utter conviction.” And he’s certainly not above ruining the reputations of both Smith and her aide, Bill Lewis, arguing that “politics isn’t dirty if it’s true.” He is a formidable opponent, so much so that his fellow Republican Senators, not wanting to be branded as “soft on Communism, support him even as they denigrate him behind his back.
Director David Saint has cast two magnificent actors to play Margaret Chase Smith (Harriet Harris) and Joseph R. McCarthy (Lee Sellars). Harris sails onto the nearly bare stage like a frigate, inhabiting the entire space and commanding our attention with her dignity, self-assurance and strong moral compass. Just listening to her rail against political opportunism and what she terms “national suicide” (although she never mentions McCarthy by name, everyone in the chamber knew who she was talking about) is inspiring and makes one want to stand up and cheer. (Above: Wake, Sellars, Harris)
Sellars has the juicier role, portraying McCarthy as a snake, a master manipulator who revels in chaos and screams when cornered. He reads a newspaper as Smith delivers her speech. There is nothing redeeming about his character. Indeed, Sellars is so odious that one almost wants to take a shower after watching his masterful performance.
In supporting roles, Mark Junek is competent and reasoned as Smith’s chief of staff, in contrast to Cathryn Wake as McCarthy’s chief aide Jean Kerr, who aids and abets his malicious intent and supports him so fully that she eventually marries him. She is the less sympathetic of the two; she’s as manipulative and conniving as her boss, while Junek’s Lewis is more sympathetic, given the secret he’s hiding. Indeed, the scene between Lewis and Smith, where he comes out to her is awesomely performed with Harris showing her distaste for his situation, him weeping and the two reconciling because of their mutual respect and love for one another. Junek and Wake are to be commended, too, for narrating the events of what we now term “the McCarthy era,” 1950-1954.
James Youmans has designed a nearly bare but evocative set—really a platform with two desks and chairs and four chairs that are hauled up onto the platform when needed. The spartan effect is enhanced by projections on the back wall of Senate office windows, the Senate chamber ceiling and the Capitol. Fixtures for both a women’s and men’s lavatories descend from the ceiling when needed. The lack of concrete decoration focuses our attention on the dialogue, so necessary as this is a war of words and ideas. Joe Saint’s lighting design denotes passage of both time and place, and Scott Killian’s original music and sound design are appropriately atmospheric. Brian Hemesath has provided Sen. Smith with sensible attire: a gray suit in Act I and a black dress and jacked in Act II, both accessorized with the rose the Senator was fond of wearing.
I wonder if anyone younger than 70 even knows of Margaret Chase Smith, but DiPietro’s riveting drama resurrects this principled legislator and her uncouth, crude adversary so well that younger theatregoers will see the parallels to politics today. Only when the Senate hearings to investigate conflicting accusations between the United States Army and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy were broadcast on television did the public realize what was going on in Washington. The climax came when McCarthy slandered an associate of the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph Welch. Welch fixed McCarthy with a steady glare and declared evenly, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness…Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” A stunned McCarthy listened as the packed audience exploded into cheers and applause. McCarthy’s days as a political power were effectively over. In December 1954, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy for his conduct. Three years later he died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver. (Above: Harriett Harris as Margaret Chase Smith delivers her Declaration of Conscience to the Senate)
Margaret Chase Smith went on to an illustrious political career. As a candidate for the Republican nomination in the 1964 presidential election, she was the first woman to be placed in nomination for the presidency at a major party's convention. Upon leaving office, she was the longest-serving female Senator in history, a distinction unsurpassed until January 5, 2011, when Senator Barbara Mikulski was sworn in for a fifth term. To date, Smith is ranked as the longest-serving Republican woman in the Senate.
Joseph McCarthy caught no Communists during his reign of political terror. He wanted to find an enemy, and Margaret Chase Smith was it. Conscience is a play for the 2020s. It reminds us of our democracy’s fragility and exhorts us never to take it for granted. The hope it offers is sorely needed. Thank you, George Street Playhouse and Joe DiPietro, for bringing us this timely, provocative drama.
Conscience will be performed at Arthur Laurents Theatre in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 11 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, through March 29, 2020. For information and tickets, call the box office at 732.246.7717 or visit www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org online.