5 Reasons Why it Would be Unconscionable to Miss Conscience
By: Iris Wiener
March 9, 2020: “Never have I ever met anyone who can make up things on the spot with such conviction,” spits Senator Margaret Chase Smith as she reflects on Senator Joseph McCarthy in one of many moments of poignant clarity and horrifying irony in the world-premiere of Tony-Award winner Joe DiPietro’s new play Conscience. Now running through March 29th at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, Conscience takes audiences behind the scenes of the political world of 1950s Washington, shedding insight on the scandalously atrocious power plays, both political and personal, in the days leading up to and following Smith’s iconic “Declaration of Conscience” speech. After its delivery on the Senate floor on June 1st, 1950, Smith rattled McCarthyism, Congress, and the nation itself. Conscience is an essential theater-going experience, and here is why:
- It is a rare gem that is as engaging as it is important and informative – so much more than a political drama. Conscience invites audiences to remember the ineptitude of Senator McCarthy and the divisiveness he fed, while shining a light on Senator Smith, a fellow Republican and the first woman elected to both the House of Representatives and the United States Senate…and the first leader to see through McCarthy’s manipulative regime. Though she was first intrigued by McCarthy’s bluntly outgoing manner (and the possibility that he might aid in her political advancement), she finally challenged his derisive, disturbing methods amidst his notorious “Enemies from Within” Speech. With the White House in a similarly disastrous state, Smith’s principles should be remembered and emulated.
2. Harriet Harris and Lee Sellars are giving dynamic performances. Harris’ Smith is equally compassionate and stern, especially sharp in Smith’s moments of disbelief. Harris ingeniously layers Smith’s persona and stature with rawness and honesty. Sellars enters the stage grittily bombastic, his obstinacy as palpable as the sneer on his joyless face. The actor deftly steers McCarthy’s tornado of destruction with alacrity.
3. Joe DiPietro, who is currently represented by Diana on Broadway, is the uncommon writer who mounts multiple genres with verve and passion. While an epic, high-profile bio musical is set to tug at hearts of one ilk in New York, others will be crushed by the equally true story playing out in New Brunswick (and the reality that history is repeating itself in 2020 with America’s current political state). The writing in Conscience is sharp and tight at every juncture. Smith says of McCarthy, “He’s like the worst boy you went to high school with,” later telling him, “You say the stupidest things possible and then revel in the chaos.” DiPietro’s peak into her mindset (with an intelligent knack for balanced narration and action) makes Smith’s story accessible and definitive.
4. David Saint’s direction of Harris and Smith alongside Cathryn Wake (who plays Jean Kerr, McCarthy’s secretary and puppet), and Mark Junek (an advisor to Smith with a personal story ripe for exploitation) is careful and well-executed. The actors remain on stage when they are not in scenes, spectators as Smith bravely stands up to McCarthyism and Congress. James Youmans’ set is simply bare and grey (though with the addition of minimal props and lighting it serves as a Senate chamber, a restaurant, and a news studio, among other locales) highlighting the actors’ deft performances.
5. There is no better way to celebrate the George Street Playhouse’s new home in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Featuring two state-of-the-art, chic, easily accessible theaters, it is modern and comfortable; paired with a show as intelligent as Conscience, it offers an invigorating, memorable night of theater.
Tickets for Conscience are available for purchase at www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org, or by calling 732-246-7717