The interrogations run by the supposedly anti-communist House Un-American Activities Committee back in the mid-20th century were evil by any standard.This production of Daniel Hahn's Seeing Red drives that point home.
This outreach production by the Great Lakes Theater Festival precedes the company's staging of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, starting later this month, and is intended to show some events that led Miller to write his powerful Salem-witch-trial allegory. Sampling real testimony from the actual committee proceedings, which involved key people from the theater world of the time, Seeing Red has some flat spots, but generally fulfills its mission.
The least well-known of the witnesses is Hallie Flanagan, National Director of the Federal Theatre Project, who also serves as the play's narrator. Grilled in 1938 about her trips to Russia to observe theater there, Flanagan (Elizabeth R. Wood) is a smooth and unruffled target, as she fends off the absurd questions offered by various congressmen (one gets excited about pursuing Christopher Marlowe as a communist before being told the playwright was a contemporary of Shakespeare).
Equally unflappable are Paul Robeson and Arthur Miller himself, and that is one of the niggling problems with this production. By focusing the one-hour running time almost solely on the testimony — with some passages more riveting than others — Hahn's work underplays the devastating effects these hearings had on witnesses who refused go along with the "patriotic" farce. Careers were destroyed along with lives, since there were more than a dozen suicides caused by these venal proceedings.
Still, the four-person cast, under the direction of Andrew May, keeps the necessarily static production engaging. David Hansen is particularly good as Miller, who refused to name anyone in his 1956 testimony. And Justin Tatum does a passable Ronald Reagan in his appearance before the committee in 1947. While Joseph Primes cuts an imposing figure as Paul Robeson, his lack of crisp projection makes his lines difficult to hear.
This free touring production is certainly worth a viewing, particularly if you're planning to see The Crucible in a few weeks.