Writer: Terry Jastrow
Director: Joe Harmston
Reviewer: Daniel Perks
Sean Cavanagh’s set reflects a country split in two, right down the middle. The American flag is torn asunder by the country of Vietnam, the stark reality of war and its associated casualties written all too clearly on top of the stars and stripes. Even in today’s society the outcome is one of hot debate – American war heroes serving their country vs. outsider interference into a country that didn’t deserve such bloodshed. Amid all this controversy is actress-turned-activist Jane Fonda (Anna Archer) who, in Terry Jastrow’s tale of events is sat in a group of chairs (not unlike a support group meeting), steeling herself to be devoured by a group of angry veterans. Daughter of war hero Henry Fonda, Jane visited Vietnam during the war, was used in military propaganda by the Vietnamese after sitting on one of their anti-aircraft guns and instantly became ‘Hanoi Jane’, one of the most hated film stars at the time. Joe Harmston blends old photographs and film clips in an attempted montage that allows Jane to tell her story.
Archer’s portrayal of Fonda is measured, experienced and composed. Archer has a glare that can disarm a man at 20 paces, even hardened war veterans such as these. She opens herself up to scrutiny from the men and the audience by stepping on stage, but is able to remain humbled, open and honest amid rising testosterone and anger. Intelligent will always overcome pig-headedness.
The remaining actors paint a broad picture of Americans that have served – lawyers and stock brokers, men in between jobs and men permanently physically and mentally scarred by the atrocity of war are all the same when thrown into such conflict. In this group, the Reverend John Clarke (Martin Fisher) is the only one willing to hear out the actress at first; one imagines his faith requires him to mediate, albeit with reluctance. Fisher gives a solid performance, as do most of the other actors, understanding their anger, their motivation, their backgrounds. Whether stubborn and blind to reason like Joe Celano II (Paul Hertzberg) or erudite and informed like Larry Bonk (Alex Gaumond), each has their own personality and characteristics to bring to the performance. Like Archer, all are Cin their capabilities.
It takes Reggie Wells (Ako Mitchell) to elevate Harmston’s lukewarm production to another level, one that has impact and heart, one that turns a history lesson into a production about people, passion and purpose. Mitchell is the soldier permanently disabled by a child from the Viet Cong, whose performance allows the audience to empathise with the group. As his part grows, his speech expands and his voice cracks, there is a true sadness and futility in his message – ultimately was all the sacrifice worth it? Mitchell is able to look past the red mist of rage and productively voice his frustration to Archer in a compelling and all-too-short few moments of direct dialogue between the two.
“What makes America great is not her institutions, it’s her people”. Fonda (Archer) at the time spoke out for the people against the war, against an establishment that didn’t seem to be listening. Harmston translates the story to stage in a matter-of-fact way but, try as it might,The Trial of Jane Fonda doesn’t quite reflect the pain, the emotion and the people behind such a tragedy.
Runs until 20 August 2016 | Image: Tristram Kenton