The year is 1988, the setting Waterbury, Connecticut. Ronald Reagan is president and Jane Fonda, by then a double Oscar winner, was shooting Stanley and Iris opposite Robert de Niro. Her high profile peace campaign during the Vietnam war is still a live issue and has lead to boycotts of her latest film.
The Trial of Jane Fonda takes as its subject matter a meeting between Fonda and Vietnam War veterans aimed to defuse the situation, the details of which have never been made public. The conceit is a neat one: the play is structured as a debate between Fonda and the former soldiers, thus allowing an exchange of arguments, facts and testimonies which in any other situation would have come across as forced and heavy handed. There is a slight element of lecturing- quotes from Ghandi and rattling off figures and statistics- but the technique generally works well and allows the work to become part fiction, part historical enquiry.
The show has an adversarial tone from the beginning. The war veterans, ranged across the stage, lay out a single chair for Fonda, played with great poise and gravitas by Anne Archer. Over the course of one continuous scene, the two sides spar over the morality of war, the aims and methods of US foreign policy and the personal fallout of the Vietnam conflict. The two sides, although essentially intractable, are rendered with sensitivity, with each of the veterans filled fleshed out individuals, not caricatures. Paul Herzburg deserves special mention here for his portrayal of Joe Celano, an army veteran who lost his son in Vietnam. Archer, too, captures Fonda’s public persona while also mining the depths of her interior life.
One of the play’s major concerns is truth, or the multiple accounts of truth that occur around a contentious event such as this. The programme notes detail the process playwright Terry Jastrow went through to triangulate what really happened through synthesising various witness accounts. It claims to prevent the definitive truth of what occurred behind the closed doors of that meeting in 1988. But the performance thrives not in chronicling the to and fro of the debate, but rather in laying it before an audience and subtly drawing out the multiplicity of meanings that may be attached to a single utterance. Its great strength is demonstrating, through the narrative and use of multimedia elements in the staging, that the recording and broadcast of war doesn’t bring definitive answers, but rather brings as many viewpoints as there are viewers.
The Trial of Jane Fonda is an intense, at times almost claustrophobic, 90 minutes of theatre, but one that is well worth watching, as much for the subject matter as it strong ensemble performances.
The Trial of Jane Fonda is playing at Park Theatre until 20 August. For more information and tickets, see the Park Theatre website.
Photo: Keith Pattinson