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Private Manning Goes to Washington

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 4, 2016

E. James Ford and Matt Steiner
Photo by Jan Wandrag

When is it appropriate for our government officials to hide information from the public? When is it appropriate for an individual to violate the rules of secrecy and release said information in the name of "transparency" and the "public's right to know?" These and other questions of law and ethics are front and center in The Representatives' production of Stan Richardson's politically-charged drama Private Manning Goes to Washington, opening tonight at the Studio at 345.

"Private Manning" is the very real Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst who is serving a 35-year sentence for leaking secret documents to WikiLeaks pertaining to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She does not appear directly as a character in Mr. Richardson's play, however. Instead, she shows up on paper, in a play-within-the-play that envisions a hush-hush meeting between her and President Obama on his last day in office, during which she pleads in vain for clemency.

That imagined meeting is the brainchild of Billy (E. James Ford) and a former acquaintance of his who solicits Billy's help in dramatizing Chelsea's story in order to garner sympathy to her cause. That acquaintance is named Aaron Swartz, played by Matt Steiner but based on the actual Swartz, a well-known computer programmer, activist, and hacker who ran afoul of the law for illegally downloading academic journal articles from a locked website. His own story is also woven into the drama.

Billy, who does therapeutic theater work with prisoners, is uncomfortable with taking on this job, especially when Swartz shows some paranoia himself by loudly playing music while carrying on conversations in whispers. (Says Billy: "Hey, I work in prisons. I'd really like to continue not working from home.") Nevertheless, he agrees to help, and the bulk of the play concerns Billy and Aaron's discussions about their work together, their own problematic pasts, and Chelsea Manning's actual situation. This includes the fact that much of the media attention has focused less on the specifics of her case than on her being a transgender women (formerly known as Bradley) and on her reported suicide attempts.

Private Manning Goes to Washington covers a lot of territory during its hour-long running time, much of it requiring, by necessity, the kind of background information that will allow the audience to grasp the intricacies of Manning's situation. The play, which is co-directed by its creator and Mr. Steiner, cannot help but border on the polemic, but the subject matter is never less than intriguing. And because this production, with some recent revisions, comes almost directly from an appearance at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, both the performances and the directing are polished to a gleam. Private Manning ought to lead to many a post-theater discussion regarding freedom and democracy during harrowing times.

Private Manning Goes to Washington
Through December 12
The Studio at 345, 345 West 13th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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