DB Woodside and John Cullum
in The Conscientious Objector
(© Theresa Squire)
DB Woodside and John Cullum
in The Conscientious Objector
(© Theresa Squire)
Beowulf Boritt's slyly subversive set for The Conscientious Objector, being presented at Theatre Row's Clurman Theatre by the Keen Company, features a huge fragment of the American flag as Jasper Johns might have rendered it, painted in blotchy black, white, and gray. It fills a back wall -- as if tumbling diagonally -- and then magisterially stretches across the stage floor, requiring the actors to step all over it from start to finish. The color scheme subtly underscores the racism that the play's protagonist Martin Luther King (DB Woodside) encountered during the 1960's from even civil rights champion Lyndon Baines Johnson (John Cullum).

Slyness and the subversion stop there, however. Michael Murphy's play -- in which the socially-concerned playwright grapples with how King's opposition to the Vietnam War affected the time he spent pursuing his civil rights agenda -- is yet another example of a less-than-sly work seen frequently on stage nowadays.

In a program note, Murphy stresses he's written a play in which "some liberties were taken," but the result is a theater documentary, the point of which seems less to foment drama as to illuminate and anger. Moreover, the way in which Murphy writes his screed and Carl Forsman directs it, The Conscientious Objector looks like one of those documentaries that resort to "dramatic recreations." The ultimate effect is that crucial information is conveyed within a not completely convincing context.

Moreover, with the United States once again trapped in an unpopular war -- and now with declared anti-war activist Barack Obama echoing King's outraged sentiments -- the purveyors clearly wanted to present a cautionary tale relevant to the current geopolitical situation. Well, their hearts are certainly in the right place

During the fractious period that the play covers -- 1965 to 1968 -- the anointed non-violence leader was tested by his own conscience about the war and also prodded in meetings with Johnson and intramurally battling colleagues Ralph Abernathy (Bryan Hicks), Andrew Young (James Miles), Whitney Young (Harold Surratt), Stokely Carmichael (Chad Carstarphen) and, as presented here, hot-headed pacifist James Bevel (Jimonn Cole). King is also challenged by at least one tough journalist (Jonathan Hogan doing as good a William Buckley impersonation as you'd hope to get) -- and even more regularly by wife Coretta Scott King (Rachel Leslie).

As Murphy presents King, the now-legendary figure is less a proactive crusader than a cogitating man unwilling to be restricted in public life to fighting race issues. He emphatically believes he needs to use what power he's accumulated to bring the Vietnam conflict to an end. Indeed, he's so intent on achieving his goal that at one incensed moment, he says not entirely non-violently of an adversary that he will set "my heel on the back of his neck."

In dealings with his associates, King is often the listener. On in-person confabs with LBJ, he's always conciliatory. In the play's best scene -- where Johnson reports he's been diagnosed with a catastrophic illness -- King even invokes prayer, an event recalling the Nixon-Kissinger Oval Office prayer episode. Although, there are a number of friendly, if not always serene, interludes with Coretta, less is made of King's private life -- despite J. Edgar Hoover (Hogan again) at one point handing Johnson what appears to be a file about King's often-rumored after-hours activities. Nothing more is made of the file.

The acting in The Conscientious Objector runs to the sincere, with the only cast member having trouble settling on the right tone being the fulminating Cole as Bevel. As King, Woodside pushes the ruminative button often. Cullum is particularly effective in the last depicted meeting during which Johnson is practically felled by pain. In the casting of the tall Woodside and the slightly shorter Cullum, however, there is a major problem, since Johnson measured six-foot-three, whereas King was somewhere around five-five or -six. The proper scale would have implied radically different confrontational dynamics -- with Johnson literally and metaphorically looming over King -- and helped to give the piece some of the authenticity it lacks.