When L.A. Theatre Works founder Susan Loewenberg called then-UCLA law professor Geoffrey Cowan with a First Amendment question, Cowan acted on his own right to freedom of speech. “I always thought of it as a theatrical production — not on Broadway but maybe something to be done in some theater in Springfield or something,” Cowan says of “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers.”


When L.A. Theatre Works founder Susan Loewenberg called then-UCLA law professor Geoffrey Cowan with a First Amendment question, Cowan acted on his own right to freedom of speech.   “I always thought of it as a theatrical production — not on Broadway but maybe something to be done in some theater in Springfield or something,” Cowan says of “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers.”   Cowan wrote the historical docudrama with Leroy Aarons, a former reporter for the Washington Post. Its first act chronicles a debate in Post executive editor Ben Bradlee’s living room over whether to publish the Pentagon Papers — damning Department of Defense documents on America’s Vietnam War policies.   “It was a fundamental issue of the public’s right to know, on one hand, and, in certain circumstances, the need to protect the nation by preserving certain secrets,” Cowan says.   The second act features what Loewenberg calls “a real ‘Perry Mason’ trial.” That’s based on the Post’s and the New York Times’ trek to the Supreme Court to combat prior restraint from President Richard Nixon’s administration, which had sought injunctions against printing the documents.   The papers revealed, among other things, that President Lyndon B. Johnson expanded Vietnam efforts while promising the American people that wouldn’t happen. Their leak partially inspired Nixon to create his “plumbers” — a group that later burglarized Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.   “I always thought the most dramatic, engaging and profound way to open my media law class was the Pentagon Papers case,” Cowan says. “It always made for a really compelling story, and it occurred to me that this would be a great courtroom drama.”   So Cowan figured that while he had Loewenberg’s ear — one attuned to running a radio-theater organization with America’s largest library of recorded stage plays — he’d bend it.   “When you’re a producer, everybody wants to send you a play. No matter who it is, you always go, ‘Oh, God,’ because 98 percent of the plays you read aren’t any good,” Loewenberg says. “I didn’t have much hope for it at that time. Little did I know.”   “Top Secret” was revised and reconfigured into a radio play. Actors held scripts and performed live, yet they spoke into separate microphones for a National Public Radio recording. After just six weeks, the original recording — featuring Ed Asner, Marsha Mason and Hector Elizondo — was made. It won the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s 1992 Gold Award for outstanding radio production of the year and earned inclusion in L.A. Theatre Works’ touring rotation.   Sixteen years later, Cowan, now a USC professor, is right: “Top Secret” is coming to Springfield.   Led by film, TV and stage actors John Heard, Gregory Harrison, Shannon Cochran and John Vickery, “Top Secret” is touring and will stop Friday at Sangamon Auditorium. At a later date, WUIS-FM 91.9, Springfield’s public-radio affiliate, will broadcast the performance.   Following Friday’s performance, a live discussion will be held about “Top Secret’s” subject matter. (For more Pentagon Papers information, visit www.topsecret.org, a Web site created to complement the play.)   Heard plays Bradlee; Harrison is Brian Kelly, a composite-character lawyer for the Post; Cochran is Post publisher Katharine Graham; and Vickery portrays both Post editor Ben Bagdikian and Robert Mardian, federal prosecutor of Daniel Ellsberg, the DOD employee who leaked the papers.   Apart from the more immediate timing of a presidential election year, the cast and co-writer find “Top Secret’s” issues as relevant today as they were nearly four decades ago.   “The Internet makes it harder to keep things secret because there are more outlets,” Cowan says. “Newspaper economics have made it harder for journalists to be as brave as they might be in a more robust time. And the (Supreme) court is more conservative today, so I don’t know how it would come down in the same set of circumstances. Yet, two Pulitzer Prizes in 2006 went to people who wrote about things some thought should never have been told.”   Cowan is referring to a New York Times story on electronic surveillance of telephone conversations and a Washington Post story on more-aggressive interrogation of prisoners held by Americans in other countries.   “Some people said it was a treasonous act for those papers to run those stories,” Cowan says. “Others called it the highest act of patriotism. These issues couldn’t be more current.”   Whether it’s the social satire of “Chicago” (with which he’s toured nationally) or the hard accountability of “Top Secret,” Harrison enjoys resonant dramatic work.   “More than 35 years after the fact, this is still something we’re dealing with on a daily basis in the national news,” Harrison says. “I love the post-performance discussions because I learn things and find so many different perspectives on these issues beyond my own research for the role.”   Cochran says the Pentagon Papers provided “a watershed understanding” of what the U.S. government was capable of covering up and that perhaps not much has been learned from history.   “I find that the students who come to see (‘Top Secret’) are fascinated by the story, but their next thought is, ‘Hey, isn’t this the same problem that’s being played out today with our government?’” Cochran says. “It’s the idea of what the government isn’t telling us … and that sometimes all this over-classification turns out to be to prevent the government from being embarrassed.”   In hand with “Top Secret’s” historical significance is its high drama spread over two acts, as Cowan predicted and as Loewenberg and a rotating cast of actors learned over the years.   “It’s a great story about positive aspects of a democracy that works and another lesson about checks and balances in government,” Loewenberg says. “These feisty, courageous, crusty journalists really come alive, and you see who they were.”   Harrison has enjoyed radio drama since listening to “Gunsmoke” on the radio as a child, and had itched for a chance to perform with L.A. Theatre Works since learning of it 20 years ago.   “You have to make subtle adjustments, find the music of a play both rhythmically and in the emotional notes you’re playing,” Harrison says of adapting to this presentational format. “You don’t use your physical instrument to convey anything. It would be like a painter having to take a color or two out of his palette, and figuring out how to use what’s left to paint the same picture.”   A veteran of many TV guest-starring roles, Cochran relishes the stylistic stretch of an actor’s vocal muscle afforded by this production.   “TV is such a tiny, tiny medium for the voice, and actors very rarely get to do much stylistically with their voices,” she says. “And you can find where emotion, intellect and musicality lie within that. Plus, your work is for the microphone, not for the person you’re in the scene with. You can’t turn and relate to that person in the same way because then you go off-mike.   “It sounds simple, but actors are so used to getting energy from another person. Your ears must work more aggressively to play as if you’re looking into the other person’s eyes.”   Nick Rogers can be reached at 747-9587. Read his blog at blogs.sj-r.com/unpaintedhuffhines.   “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers” Presented by L.A. Theatre Works WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday WHERE: Sangamon Auditorium, University of Illinois at Springfield TICKETS: $41 and $36; available at the auditorium ticket office, by calling 206-6160 or online at www.sangamonauditorium.org