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Peter Sagal''s "Denial," at Long Wharf, asks us how far our professed love of freedom will allow us to go.

Peter Sagal''s "Denial," at Long Wharf, asks us how far our professed love of freedom will allow us to go.

Courtroom dramas have been a staple of theatre for eons, but even they seem to have been affected by the country''s fascination with the so-called Trial of the Century and You Know Who. A case in point is "Denial," Peter Sagal''s legal drama about a Jewish lawyer who defends a man''s right to deny the Holocaust. Starring Bonnie Franklin and Max Wright, the play premieres in December at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven under the direction of Arvin Brown.

While the 30-year-old playwright makes it clear that he wrote Denial long before O.J. Simpson was arrested, he admits, "The verdict started a lot of people thinking about the distinctions between what is legal and what is just," says Sagal. "During the preliminary hearing--when they were discussing whether to admit the bloody glove--I heard people saying that if the evidence were not admitted, that there''d be a national movement to revoke the fourth amendment, which protects citizens against unreasonable search and seizure. That interested me."

Sagal''s play, of course, deals with the right of free speech and how far one is prepared to go to defend even the most reprehensible of theories. The antagonist, professor Bernard Cooper, in "Denial" is no dummy. He doesn''t even consider himself an anti-Semite, but he attacks certain "facts" about the Holocaust in order to assert that the destruction of six million Jews by Nazi Germany is an historical fiction. According to director Brown, the play itself never doubts the validity of the Holocaust but does provoke a number of questions about tolerance and the cost of it. "The play is driven by character," says Brown, "not just the issues." After all, Bernard''s defense lawyer, Abigail Gersten, is not only a strong and absolute believer in free speech, she is also a Jew who is mindful of how destructive her client''s theories can be. Indeed, Gersten eventually realizes that the price to her--emotionally, personally and professionally--is too dear. She has to make a choice, based not on the law, but on her personal and moral beliefs.

"That point where our supposed tolerance and love of the First Amendment''s rights gets tested is where things break down, where things begin to happen dramatically," says Sagal. "It''s all perfectly fine to support free speech in theory. But what happens when it is speech you loathe . . . speech that can viciously hurt people you care about, like the climate of hatred which led to [the bombing in] Oklahoma? If we are willing to give up our freedoms, it is so that people we hate don''t have them either."

Sagal says he, himself, is a strong believer in the First Amendment but that he was fascinated by how strongly he was drawn to the arguments of the opposing side. As a dramatist, he is eager to provoke, not to convince. "That''s why it''s important to use the law to promote justice, not advocacy," he says. "The law doesn''t take sides. It''s the place where these opposing issues are supposed to be discussed and resolved fairly."

-- By Patrick Pacheco

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