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Radical Acting

Date: Apr 08, 2008


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"It takes quite a lot to jar people into action," says Joanna Gleason, the Tony-winning actress now starring as a jailed radical in Willy Holtzman's play Something You Did (at Primary Stages through Apr. 26).

Gleason is talking about how hard it is for performers associated with one kind of material--in her case, musical theatre--to break the mold and be considered for more serious roles. But she could be referring to the revolutionary thinking that led her character, Alison, to take violent action in an anti-Vietnam War protest in the 1970s, which inadvertently led to the death of a New York City cop. It's decades later and Alison has a shot at parole, if she plays her cards right.

"The spring is wound up pretty tight," says Gleason, who's onstage throughout the play's 90 minutes. "It's lights up, and boing! Something's going to happen; either she has some hope of getting out or she's going to blow it."

The play has received excellent reviews, not least from audiences, Gleason says.

"It really gets the old people, because it's all a flashback to them," Gleason says. "It speaks to us middle-aged people because we were there, in the trenches. As for the young ones--it just knocks them back, because they forgot that their parents were so passionate and tough. They've been conditioned by TV to think we're all just neutered, silly people."

At 57, Gleason is just a bit younger than the generation of activists who, like the Weathermen's Kathy Boudin, infamously crossed the line between non-violent and violent resistance. But she still has strong impressions of the scene in the early 1970s, political and otherwise.

"I remember the anti-war movement very well," says Gleason, a Canadian native who later moved to the U.S. and studied theatre at UCLA and Occidental College in Los Angeles. "I was in the drama department, which is its own little commune and social movement with its own radical code, but I became aware that the anti-war movement was becoming vocal in certain ways, doing sitdowns in the quads. They were orderly, intelligently led.

"Then there was also the hippie movement, which was very different, and came in riding the coattails of the anti-war movement," Gleason recalls. "To me, that was freakishly stupid; I looked at the hippies and thought, 'You stand for nothing but dropping out and taking drugs.' So many of them pretended it was about the war, but it wasn't. I just thought, 'Please, world--don't think that this is America.' "

Though her character in Something You Did was not a self-involved hippie, her approach to social injustice was flawed, Gleason believes. "I remember the first time I heard the notion of calling cops 'pigs,' and I thought: 'These are not the lawmakers--these are people you depend on in other circumstances to help you out,' " Gleason says. "If you're going to take up the fight, the solutions are local, all the way down to who you elect to be dogcatcher. Instead, Allison got swept up in this movement where the solution was to blow up a USO party."

One gets the feeling that waxing political comes naturally to Gleason, even when she's not playing an imprisoned activist.

"American values embrace a whole lot of things that we all agree about," Gleason says. "There's such divisiveness in both parties. When you look at where this world is, poised on the edge, you think, 'What are we leaving our grandchildren? Why don't we just pull together?"

Togetherness--now there's a legacy of the 1960s we can all get behind.

Click here for more information about Something You Did.