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Play encourages talk about torture

Rebecca Berfanger
March 3, 2010
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The Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis has never shied away from controversy.

So it comes as no surprise that the play, "Sunlight," which features the debate about torture of detainees, will be shining at the venue through March 20. Two performances will include discussions following the final curtain.

After the 8 p.m. performance March 5, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis School of Public and Environmental Affairs faculty members Sheila Suess Kennedy and Jim White will be on hand. Kennedy was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana from 1992 to 1998. White served on the Indiana State Police for more than 20 years and serves as director of emergency management for Indianapolis/Marion County.

The post-play discussion March 14 will be after the 2 p.m. performance and will feature history professor Peter DiMeglio. DiMeglio taught for 37 years at the University of Wisconsin, specializing in history of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries and world civilization.

The play, written by Sharr White, is meant to encourage discussion about the legal aspects of the debate on torture and the rule of law following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, according to director Bryan Fonseca.

"The topic at the center of 'Sunlight' is the shift in definition and application of torture techniques," Fonseca wrote in the program's explanation of why he wanted The Phoenix to present it. "The drama, however, is the impact of the redefinition on our collective psyche. The undisputable cause for the shift was our response to the catastrophe of 9/11. We see the impact of all of this through the eyes of a single family. The beauty of Sharr's play is that the family represents us all. And I believe that we have been personally affected. The issue has divided us as families and as a nation."

Three of the four characters in the play are attorneys: Matthew, the zealous liberal president of a prestigious East Coast university; Vincent, the university president's son-in-law and conservative dean of the university's law school; and Charlotte, the president's daughter and Vincent's wife, herself a conservative lawyer in private practice. The fourth character is Matthew's longtime assistant Midge, who tends to side with her boss and provides comic relief from time to time.

The first scene opens the day after Matthew has allegedly ransacked Vincent's office in retaliation to the dean's work supporting torture, including a course called, "The Law of Terror." Due to the allegations following this incident, the university's board is holding a meeting to vote on whether he should be allowed to stay in his position.

Meanwhile, as Matthew's daughter and lawyer, Charlotte is handling calls from the local media and shredding seemingly irrelevant documents at Matthew's home.

Eventually Vincent and Matthew face each other in a passionate debate where Vincent explains why he is for torture, and Matthew takes a stand as to why he is adamantly opposed to it. Meanwhile, Charlotte, who has a very personal connection to Sept. 11, is torn between her loyalty to her father and to her husband, while coming to terms with her own views on the issue.

The play is especially relevant to Indiana's legal community, considering Indiana University Maurer School of Law - Bloomington professor Dawn Johnsen's nomination for the Office of Legal Counsel.

While the play doesn't expressly mention Johnsen, it does refer to the OLC's work regarding Johnsen's reports against the work of the OLC under President George W. Bush are part of why she's been a controversial nominee.

The Indianapolis theatre is the second venue to produce the play as part of its National New Play Network's Rolling World Premiere, following its first production at Marin Theatre Co. in Mill Valley, Calif.

The Phoenix Theatre is at 749 N. Park Ave., Indianapolis. For ticket information and show times, visit the theatre's Web site, http://phoenixtheatre.org, or call (317) 635-7529.

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