Conscience Review: A Brave Republican (!) Who Spoke Out Against a Demagogue

The most timely play you can watch right now is the replay of “Conscience,” the story of how Margaret Chase Smith became the lone Republican to speak out against Senator Joseph McCarthy. In her maiden speech on the floor of the Senate, the Senator from Maine (!) read into the record her Declaration of Conscience on June 1, 1950, at a time when every other Republican was afraid to speak out, because of the popularity of the anti-Communist crusader, and his willingness to campaign for the opponent of anybody he disfavored.

Lines from the play hit us like headlines:

“Cowardly politicians acquiesced to save their measly careers.”

“He says the first thing that pops into his head, no matter how absurd, no matter how insane”

The demagogue’s two strengths were “the ability to hate, and the power to communicate it as a virtue.”

The George Street Playhouse production of “Conscience” had a brief run on stage in March before the pandemic shut it down, then was reborn as a Zoom play for four days at the end of October. The theater has brought it back, smartly, during this post-Election moment of chaos, conflict, cowardice and uncertainty, through November 15th.

Directed by David Saint, George Street’s longtime artistic director, and written by Joe DiPietro, best known as the lyricist and librettist of such musicals as “Memphis”, “The Toxic Avenger” and the forthcoming “Diana”, “Conscience” is largely workmanlike. Act I presents the events leading up to the speech — McCarthy’s demagogic attacks on the government and individuals, Chase’s awakening to the falsity and recklessness of his accusations — climaxing with Chase’s delivery of her speech (an abridged version.) Act II are the consequences, with McCarthy’s effort to destroy Chase, her abandonment by her colleagues, and her eventual triumph, his eventual ignominy. During the intermission, and at the end of the play, the theater presents photographs from the original stage production – which had the effect for me of regretting that I missed it, and have to make due with the Zoom version.

But “Conscience” has several things going for it besides just its extraordinary timeliness.
One is the performance by Harriet Harris, a Tony-winning New York actress who long has been acclaimed for her quirky comedic roles (her Tony was for evil landlady Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie.) But Harris has lately been portraying serious women of a certain age and gravitas — Eleanor Roosevelt three times, in the title role of a play on the Barrington Stage Company , in the recent Ryan Murphy Netflix series “Hollywood,” and in the forthcoming TV series “Atlantic Crossing.” As Margaret Chase Smith, Harris gives life to a real-life character who would be fascinating as a pioneering woman politician – the only woman in the Senate at the time — even if she had never spoken her conscience. Intelligent and committed, certainly, she is also depicted in “Conscience” as at times vulnerable, but also wily. Among the most absorbing passages in the play occurs at the top of Act II, about her entry into politics. She first ran for Congress “the sympathetic widow” of the late Clyde Smith, who had held the seat before her. But “sympathy has a time limit,” she tells us, and her opponents in the next election ran on the argument: Why vote for a woman when you can elect a man? At the same time, she was accused of being too “mannish.” So she distributed a photograph of herself taking a pie out of the oven to “every damn newspaper in Maine.
“Did I actually bake that pie? Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t bake; I legislate…But I appeared the way I needed to appear.”
“Conscience” has only three other cast members. The choice of Joe McCarthy is obvious, and Lee Sellars’ portrayal of him is obvious too – a loud, crude drunk. (Perhaps there is no other way to play him?) But the production also features Mark Junek as William Lewis, Jr., Smith’s aide, and Cathryn Wake as Jean Kerr, McCarthy’s aide and eventual wife. These two are actual characters from history, with compelling biographies of their own – Lewis was gay, at a time when homosexuality was not just illegal, but one of the main targets of McCarthy’s witch hunt. And the play cleverly uses the two to offer point/counterpoint commentary on the politics of the era. There is never any doubt what side the playwright favors, but the harshly conflicting perspectives make it easier for us to enter into an ugly, divisive moment in history that seems just about indistinguishable from our own.

The actual Joe McCarthy and Margaret Chase Smith

Written by Joe DiPietro
Directed by David Saint
Cast: Harriet Harris Mark Junek Lee Sellars Cathryn Wake
Running time: About two hours (not including the intermission)
Available online through November 15th.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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