Mike Lawler plunges into moral gray areas with his play Uncivil Disobedience, an oral-history-based chronicle of the UW Sterling Hall bombing in 1970. During two staged readings this weekend, 10 Forward Theater Company actors will portray 43 characters, all based on interviews, court transcripts, FBI records, police reports and media reports.
Lawler is 38 and has lived in Madison for five years. His in-the-works play takes a documentary approach, deferring to the voices of those who were around for the event, which killed UW postdoctoral researcher Robert Fassnacht and brought Vietnam-era outrage to a head for all sides. The source materials were gathered by the Wisconsin Story Project and the UW's oral history program.
The play has already garnered some petty infamy courtesy of Madison blogger Ann Althouse, who has focused in on this Lawler quote from Forward's blog: "For me...the central question of the story we're telling is not, 'Were the bombers justified?' but rather, 'Why do most of us think that they weren't?'" (Also see Althouse's blog for some confused scandal-making over whether Forward requires reservation-holding playgoers to show ID.)
Lawler believes the bombing wasn't justified, and he wanted to explore that reaction, "even though I know that there's a lot of people who make the case that...[the bombers] botched something that maybe wasn't such a bad idea. That may be a horrible way to put it."
The playwright previously used oral history and theater to examine death and turbulent emotions in another Wisconsin Story Project endeavor, 2010's Cancer Stories - while battling and eventually beating testicular cancer. The work on Uncivil Disobedience was, he says, more painstaking. "This project was much more about me sitting in a room, doing research and poring over documents, images and [transcripts]," he says.
Bombers Karl Armstrong and David Fine declined to be interviewed for the project, to Lawler's regret. (One accomplice, Dwight Armstrong, died in 2010, and the last, Leo Burt, remains at large.) But an interview with bombing survivor David Schuster, now a physics and science education professor at Western Michigan University, helped assuage any disappointment.
"Only a couple of people in the world...have the right to state emphatically anything about this event, and David Schuster is one of those people," Lawler says. "He's very articulate about the bombing, why it happened and how it maybe could have been avoided."