With Smith’s challenge thrown down, though, McCarthy in the second act is hellbent on her destruction, threatening to expose not only her secrets (her congressman husband was chronically unfaithful and died of syphilis) but also Lewis’s (he is gay and closeted). Frightened though Smith is, she is even more outraged that so many others knuckle under to McCarthy’s blatant thuggery.
Smith went on to have a far longer career than McCarthy, and twice as long a life; for all the damage he wrought, he spent only a decade in the Senate and didn’t live to see 50. The play makes a point of the brevity of his terrorizing reign.
It is acutely alert, too, to the egregious sexism that Smith and other women endured just to do their jobs. The exposition, though, is occasionally clumsy, as when Kerr expresses surprise at running into Smith in a regular women’s restroom at the Senate.
“I just assumed you’d be in a senator’s washroom,” Kerr says, but would a whip-smart female staffer think that, really, when there wasn’t even a tiny one for female senators until the 1990s?
Still, when Kerr mentions that Smith is being floated as a possible vice-presidential nominee, the senator speaks the stubborn Catch-22 out loud. Even if she were interested, Smith says, “it would be, well, unladylike for me to say so.”
As programming for Women’s History Month, then, “Conscience” makes a lot of sense.
Oddly, however, the deliberate male-female balance we see onstage is absent from the show’s creative team. Playwright, director, designers — all men. It’s as if the play’s lesson on gender equality weren’t applicable to the workplace that is professional theater.
Yet it is. And when the creative team you’re assembling scores worse on female membership than the U.S. Senate in 1950, you might want to check your conscience.
Through March 29 at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, New Brunswick, N.J.; 732-246-7717, georgestreetplayhouse.org. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.