By Constance Rodgers
Paul Schwartz’s new play A Measure of Doubt is a tight chamber drama inspired by Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the United States Supreme Court in 2018. When Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford, her testimony, along with Kavanaugh’s shockingly cruel and vengeful attempts at denial, dramatized women’s struggle against the patriarchy that we have been experiencing across every cultural front. Schwartz’s play mirrors this struggle without being a straightforward retelling.
In A Measure of Doubt Federal Circuit Court Judge Marc Berrigan (Steve Blanchard), upon being appointed for supreme court, has been accused of rape. Assured of his confirmation Berrigan is looking for a law clerk to work with him at his new and important position. Tabitha Gaynor (Kathleen Simmonds) is a young brilliant lawyer who previously worked for a liberal state Senator. In spite of knowing of the rape allegation, and of Berrigan’s unabashed conservatism, Gaynor applies for the position. The job application involves Berrigan asking Gaynor to extemporaneously, and just for him, argue both for and against his confirmation to the supreme court specifically addressing the rape accusation. During these oral arguments we discover Berrigan’s version of things and the version Gaynor knows from reports, and her personal research.
Gaynor has discovered that she is the daughter of Judge Berrigan and (she thinks) the woman who has accused the judge of rape. As it turns out Gaynor’s birth mother is not the woman who has accused Berrigan. Gaynor’s birth mother is just another woman Berrigan has assaulted. In a directorially (Janet Bentley) inventive scene, we hear the woman’s story. From side stage and alone Anna Holbrook (Samantha) powerfully acts out the night of the rape. We learn that Marc Berrigan gave Samantha a false name and lied about where he lived and went to college, placing himself on the opposite coast of America.
The log line for A Measure of Doubt says the play asks the question is a man defined by the worst thing he has ever done. My answer is yes. Especially when he has done it more than once. Berrigan by his own admission, spent his college years binge drinking and forcing himself on young women. That is rape. His abuse was premeditated and can not even be softened with the misnomer, date rape. Berrigan’s lies about his identity, during at least one of these incidents, is proof he had no intention of seeing them again or of being found if a pregnancy or disease resulted. What he has done, more than once, is straight forward rape, with no qualifiers.
A Measure of Doubt begins to redeem Berrigan but thankfully it does not fully go there. Ultimately his daughter does not forgive him, does not give into his plea to not be defined by the worst thing he has ever done. Though it is compelling to watch the young Gaynor out-lawyer this stand in for the patriarchy, and while the play’s heart is in the right place, A Matter of Doubt is too bogged down by plot contrivances to really tap into the nerve of a very raw collective cultural memory. I ask do we need a play that presents any defense of an abusive misogynist or allows us to hear their tired old excuses?
The dialogue is snappy and the cast is up to the task. Steve Blanchard as Justice Marc Berrigan shifts seamlessly from his thin veneer of pious intellectualism to the cruel bully underneath. Kathleen Simmonds as Tabitha Gaynor is appropriately both vulnerable and confident. In flashback vignettes and phone calls, Anna Holbrook and James B. Kennedy play, with bravado, a gallery of supporting characters. The cast is talented and strong. I have to especially applaud Holbrook who plays Samantha, Gaynor’s birth mother, at several stages of her life with gentle strength.
A Measure of Doubt was presented at the Hudson Guild Theatre in association with the Winterfest Festival of New Plays. It is not currently running.
Written by Paul Schwartz; Directed by Janet Bentley
With Steve Blanchard, Kathleen Simmonds, Anna Holbrook, James B. Kennedy