'The Trial of Jane Fonda': Theater Review

The Trial of Jane Fonda Production Still - Publicity - H 2016
Keith Pattison

The Trial of Jane Fonda Production Still - Publicity - H 2016

Regrets, she’s had a few, but then again ...

Veteran Oscar nominee Anne Archer plays Hollywood screen legend Jane Fonda in Terry Jastrow’s dramatic reassessment of Fonda’s controversial antiwar activist past.

In 1972, during the latter stages of the Vietnam War, Hollywood superstar and antiwar activist Jane Fonda went on a highly publicized fact-finding mission to Hanoi to witness the damage inflicted by U.S. bombing, meeting with locals and American POWs. Notoriously, she also was photographed sitting at an anti-aircraft artillery gun, smiling and singing songs, handing a major propaganda coup to the North Vietnamese. This ill-advised stunt generated great opprobrium back home, earning Fonda the nickname "Hanoi Jane" and angering her own screen legend father Henry.

It is surely no coincidence that Terry Jastrow's stage play about Fonda's contentious antiwar legacy shares stylistic similarities with the classic legal drama 12 Angry Men, one of Henry Fonda's finest performances. A veteran Emmy-winning TV producer, Jastrow first directed The Trial of Jane Fonda himself on the Edinburgh Fringe two years ago, with his wife Anne Archer (Fatal Attraction, Patriot Games) in the lead role. Archer returns in this London run, while Jastrow hands over directing duties to Joe Harmston. But even two years later, this new production retains the play's key flaws from Edinburgh, feeling more like an airless high-school history seminar than a full-blooded human drama.

The action takes place 16 years after the Hanoi Jane controversy, dramatizing a real incident in June 1988, when Fonda was on location with Robert De Niro shooting Martin Ritt's romantic drama Stanley and Iris. After angry army vets threaten to shut down production in the small Connecticut town of Waterbury, Fonda arranges a summit meeting in a church to try and explain her anti-war past and, perhaps more importantly, avoid a costly relocation of the movie. At the real meeting there were 26 protesters, but Jastrow slims that down to six, with ex-army priest Reverend John Clarke (Martin Fisher) serving as host and referee. Six angry men, one superstar sex symbol.

A picture of haughty youthful idealism tempered by creeping midlife compromise, Archer gives an unshowy impression of Fonda at the apex of her blonde fitness-queen period — more nuanced evocation than straight impersonation. By contrast, the veterans who confront her are mostly depicted as boorish macho hotheads given to sexist insults and hair-trigger fisticuffs. Most are Brits playing Americans, a cultural mix which often produces this kind of testosterone-heavy bellowing. In fairness, the entire cast is hobbled by Jastrow's relentlessly clunky dialogue, which is leaden and over-explanatory.

Jastrow met with Fonda personally before writing his play, then followed in her footsteps with a research mission to Vietnam. The Trial of Jane Fonda is not officially endorsed by Fonda, but one reason it fails to engage as drama is because there is never any doubt over where its sympathies lie. From the start, Jastrow loads the dice towards his beatific, cool-headed, Gandhi-quoting heroine.

Inevitably, both sides soften during the course of the play, with Fonda conceding she was probably duped into posing with the anti-aircraft gun. But the largely interchangeable vets are mostly stuck with schematic character arcs, from flag-waving bullies to weeping trauma survivors who just need a hug before they surrender to their celebrity nemesis. "Enough already, dues have been paid," one shrugs. "Maybe you sacrificed in your own way," another concludes. All this cathartic closure is very Oprah, but feels too neat, too sweet, too banal.

Aside from Archer's fragrant depiction of grace under pressure, this production's main attraction is Sean Cavanagh's striking stage design, a billboard-sized stars and stripes slashed in half by a giant graphic silhouette of Vietnam, all overlaid with the names and dates of American military battles spanning several centuries. The central panel also serves as a sporadic video screen, punctuating the drama with snippets of archive footage, including U.S. veterans confessing to the torture and mass murder of Vietnamese civilians, plus extensive clips of the real Fonda in Hanoi.

History has largely proved Fonda right in her antiwar stance, of course. But a sharper writer — an Aaron Sorkin or Tony Kushner, say — would have drawn more dramatic energy from the prickly social, political and historical forces that still linger around America's disastrous engagement in Vietnam. For example, Jastrow largely misses the chance to highlight timely parallels with current U.S. military action in the Middle East, aside from a few pointed lines about the horrors of "collateral damage" and "push-button, remote-control wars." If nothing else, serious drama should make liberal viewers like me work a bit harder for our smug peacenik pieties. As Fonda herself used to say in her aerobics videos: No pain, no gain.

Venue: Park Theatre, London
Cast: Anne Archer, Christien Anholt, Martin Fisher, Alex Gaumond, Paul Herzberg, Ako Mitchell, Mark Rose
Playwright: Terry Jastrow
Director: Joe Harmston
Set designer: Sean Cavanagh
Costume designer: Roberto Surace
Lighting designer: Tony Simpson
Music & sound designer: Matthew Bugg
Projection designer: Louise Rhoades-Brown
Presented by Acute Theatre, Dann Moss