War is ugly. After it’s over, survivors struggle to explain its inhumanity. Sometimes a evil is pinned on a specific person in enemy ranks to help explain the horrors. That’s the gist of “The Andersonville Trial,” which has been revived by American Century Theater.
The play was written in 1959 by playwright Saul Levitt and follows closely the transcript of a post-Civil War trial that found Confederate prison commandant Henry Wirz (Charles Matheny) guilty of atrocities at a prison camp in Andersonville, Ga., where more than 14,000 Union soldiers died. He subsequently was hanged.
Wirz’s defense: He merely followed orders. Isn’t that what a soldier or law enforcement officer is supposed to do? And who has the will to disobey?
Director Jack Marshall has created an intense play in which characters explode with powerful lines about a soldier’s duty as it conflicts with his conscience.
The acting by the 20-member cast is solid and straightforward. Especially strong is the performance by Mr. Matheny, who plays the Swiss-immigrant-turned-prison-commandant. He oozes the desperation of someone who knows he is facing death. He pulls off the German accent, too.
Nat Benchley gives an effective portrayal of Otis H. Baker, Wirz’s smooth, smart and flamboyant, but losing, defense lawyer. Bruce Alan Rauscher plays Lt. Col. N.P. Chipman, the prosecutor, with a nervous and believable righteousness that comes with being on the winning side of a war.
Set designer Thomas B. Kennedy and stage managers Terri Carnahan and Suzanne Diffley have created an intimate space, where the audience sits on benches like in a real courtroom. The actors, who get up and down from their respective desks to point to maps, rile witnesses and gesticulate wildly, never block the view of the audience while achieving a dynamic intimacy with it.
But a director and actors can only do so much to create and sustain tension, surprise and revelation when the audience already knows how the trial is going to end.
One witness after another is called by the prosecutor to tell the same, simple story: Wirz is evil and committed awful crimes against humanity. The parading of witnesses becomes redundant, and the 21/2-hour play drags in the second half. An easy remedy would have been to cut the number of witnesses and shorten the play by half an hour.
Overall, however, “The Andersonville Trial,” is engaging and diligently moves the audience back 135 years to a trial stuffed with the timeless theme of duty vs. conscience.
* * *
WHAT: “The Andersonville Trial”
WHERE: Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington
WHEN: 2:30 and 8 p.m. today; 2:30 p.m. tomorrow; 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays through Aug. 4. The only Sunday matinee is tomorrow at 2:30 p.m.
TICKETS: $17 to $22
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS