Jane Fonda in the Court of Public Opinion

Ben Miles Reviews - Theater
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Nearly forty years after her controversial trip to Vietman, there are those who can't forgive Jane Fonda for her anti-war activism. This world-premiere staging in Santa Monica is bound to challenge both that notion and the commotion surrounding Fonda's foray against the American government's imperial adventurism in that southeast Asian country.

The play is written by Terry Jastrow and efficiently co-directed by the playwright and Michelle Danner. Anchored by the magnetic Anne Archer in the title role, the scenario is based on a real-life incident that unfolded in Waterbury, Connecticut on June 18, 1988.

Jane Fonda was set to start filming Stanley & Iris with her co-star, Robert De Niro. But a group of war veterans objected to Fonda’s presence in their hardscrabble New England town. In an effort to find a reconciliation of sorts between Fonda and the vets, the Oscar-winning actress agreed to meet with the former warriors – in spite of a warning from the opposing faction that she may need a bodyguard (ultimately no such security measures were required).

In Jastrow’s program note, the dramatist states, “There were no recording devices present (at the meeting).” Further, Jastrow writes, “The play is in no way an attempt to re-enact what happened (there).” It is, therefore, all the more remarkable how true the dialogue in "Jane Fonda" rings and how compelling this highly manufactured drama turns out to be.

With documentary-like effects, the narrative of the play is driven forward by archival footage from the Viet Nam era. We see black and white images of Jane Fonda sitting atop North Vietnamese weaponry projected on a huge TV screen hanging above center stage.  We witness, in living color, the carpet-bombing of the verdant Vietnamese countryside, as ordered by President Nixon. We are able to eavesdrop on a taped conversation between Nixon and then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Nixon is heard imploring Kissinger to “Think Big, Henry” with regard to nuking North Viet Nam; this after Kissinger suggested that such action might be “Too much.”

Anne Archer’s portrait of Jane Fonda is not at all a physical replication. Archer is a distinct beauty in her own right. Nevertheless, Archer captures the staunchness of Fonda as well as Fonda’s innate intelligence. And, believe it or not, we go away from this performance not only with fresh insights into the time period and historical circumstances, but also with a new-found (or, perhaps, renewed) empathy for Jane Fonda and her passion for peace.

The payoff comes after an intense dramatic arc through which Fonda attempts to come to terms with six other unyielding characters – all war veterans, each resentful of Fonda’s alleged “treason.”On display here is Fonda’s tenacious diplomacy and willingness to hear and respond to the complaints of the ex-soldiers. It is a lesson in courage and the therapeutic benefits of authentic interchanges among those who heartily disagree.

In addition to Chauntae Pink who bookends the show as a local TV reporter attempting to cover the Fonda forum, Ben Shields plays Fonda’s press agent and Steve Voldseth acts as pastor of the Episcopalian Church where the meeting is held.

But the dramatic conflict of Jane Fonda is found in the sparks created by the half-dozen recalcitrant characters encountered by Fonda at that makeshift summit. These roles are fully and masculinely  embodied by Terrence Beasor as Archie; Robert Foster as Tommy Lee; Marc Gadbois as Anthony; James Giordano as Buzzy; Jonathan Kells Phillips as Larry; and Don Swayze as Don Simpson.

On Chris Stone’s ingeniously taut set-design, this cast and crew of theater artist are able to convey the faceted sensibilities that are part and parcel of that long ago war’s legacy. What’s more, "Jane Fonda" begs the question of forgiveness. It’s been said that to understand all is to forgive all. This play provides for us a more complete understanding of our shared history. It’s up to each of us to discover forgiveness in our own hearts and minds.

Jane Fonda in the Court of Public Opinion continues at the Edgemar Center for the Arts – 2437 Main Street, Santa Monica – through December 4. Show times are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Sunday performances are at 7 p.m. For reservations, dial (310) 392 – 7327. For online ticketing and further information, visit www.edgemarcenter.org.