Performance Review: “A Case of Libel”, presented by Novato Theatre Company

[Reviewed by Martin Rushmere]

The themes are even more relevant today than they were 60 years ago. Patriotism, Communism, the First Amendment and the ghost of McCarthy are all re-awakened in this robust production of the 1963 courtroom-plus-politics drama, based on a real case in 1954.   Courageous Second World War correspondent Denis Corcoran is outraged when a nationally syndicated columnist repeatedly accuses him of debauchery, cowardice and communist sympathies.

Instead of pistols at dawn, the two clash in court. (Corcoran got in the first barbs with a blistering attack on his journalist rival).

Director Ron Nash and producer Brenda Weidner coax a sterling effort from everyone, with the most consistent performance from Kris Neely as the opposing lawyer. Shrewd casting makes the imposing bulk of Paul Abbot as Corcoran’s lawyer dominate the scenes even when he is not speaking. And Ron Dailey as three characters (thank heavens no Equity actors are involved) comes off very well – although the Scottish burr does falter a touch.

A clever piece of stagecraft, to relate the events to the context of the times they were in, is getting the actors to read news headlines from the period (color television, jet travel, Elvis). Stirring speeches and unexpected twists in the storyline keep the attention focused.

However, the play is overlong (three Acts) and could do with judicious cutting of some of the speeches. The problem lies with politics in the last 50 years, because politicians and presidential candidates have trotted out the lines and sentiments so often that they have become hackneyed, ringing with insincerity. Especially in the closing speeches (stirringly delivered by both lead actors) one could predict, if not the actual words, the themes about to be uttered.

The courts, costs of litigation and legal processes have changed so much that in today’s climate the sequence of events seems almost quaint. But the pressing moral, social and political issues still burn as bright and productions such as this deserve their days on the stage.


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