Eugene V. Debs, five-time Socialist candidate for president, once said, "While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." Debs knew plenty about life behind bars, having been convicted under anti-espionage law for a 1918 speech in Canton, Ohio, against World War I. For his words, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The ideas and spirit of Eugene Debs inform writer-director Callen Harty's new play at Broom Street Theater, Debs in Prison (running through Feb. 18). But here, "Debs" refers not to the activist, but to the kind of debs who wear elegant dresses and have coming-out parties. Inspired by Debs' Canton speech, some young women have decided to disrupt a debutante ball to make an antiwar statement. The fracas that ensues lands several of them temporarily in jail.
Not all of the young women are instigators. Barb is an apolitical girl who just wants to be happy in her own corner of the world. As played convincingly by Jennifer Poppy, Barb isn't uncaring; she's just not ready to take on the world's problems.
Barb's closest friend, Angie (Bree Bensen), is passionately devoted to Eugene Debs' antiwar ideas. While her commitment may be admirable, Angie also suffers from that mix of dogma and naïveté particular to new converts. She's the sort of lawyer's daughter who lectures others about the nefarious aims of the ruling class.
Barb, Angie and the other freshly booked occupants of the jail encounter two long-term prisoners, Bernette and Francine (well played by Nancy Craig and Heather Renken, respectively), who have their own stories to tell. Here, the play turns from the antiwar focus to address other forms of violence and women's responses to it. Debs in Prison becomes a feminist play in a wider sense. At times, this larger view seems to take on too much, yet it also adds other shades of meaning as women from various backgrounds are thrown together.
It's a credit to Harty's thoughtful, intelligent writing that most of his characters are multilayered, neither wholly sympathetic nor all bad. He also avoids misguided historical comparisons between World War I and the current Iraq war, while still raising timely issues about the cost of political speech.
There's a lot to chew on here, but the play doesn't fall into the relentless earnestness of rebellious would-be deb Angie. It opts instead to mix character-driven entertainment with politics, suggesting there are many valid ways to make change in the world.