Both parties argue their evidence vociferously and then throw themselves on the mercy of the court (us, in the audience). Whose fault was the rift between Harry Blackmun and Warren Burger? Why did two boys who became fast friends in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood of St. Paul turn into bitter foes at the end of their long lives?
Playwright Lee Blessing provides lots of evidence for each man in his superb new play “Courting Harry,” but he refuses to tidy up this messy relationship and leaves us with broken hearts and sympathy for two of Minnesota’s most-famous jurists. In 90 minutes, Blessing sketches the rough biographical contours of each man, discusses politics and constitutional law and delves into the voluminous lifelong correspondence between Burger and Blackmun. It is excellent drama, rich history and illuminating psychology — just what theater should be.
“Courting Harry” opened last weekend with actors Clyde Lund (Blackmun) and Nathaniel Fuller (Burger) parrying on the History Theatre stage in St. Paul. Blessing based the play on “Becoming Justice Blackmun,” Linda Greenhouse’s book about the jurist’s papers.
This is clearly Blackmun’s story. Blessing places him in the great beyond, where he has sought reconciliation with Burger. The two men then illustrate how lifelong familiarity, small resentments and smug assumptions can create a sinkhole beneath friendship.
Director Joel Sass’s production glides efficiently when it needs to, but keenly zeroes in on the emotional moments from which this human saga is drawn. In his smart work, Sass is aided beautifully by the dimension and ease that Lund and Fuller invest in their work.
“You spent your whole life nursing a grudge!” Fuller’s Burger thunders as the characters unload in the riveting denouement. “Every friendship has a dominant partner.”
And it is clear that Burger assumed that role for himself. He was older, the better athlete, handsome and personable. Burger ambitiously ingratiated himself with politicians and escaped Minnesota in 1952 for a role in the Eisenhower justice department. He hectors the “dithering” Blackmun for eschewing the same path and instead charting a career that kept him in the Land of 10,000 Lakes until he was 60 years old.
Burger, who became chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1969, tapped his old friend and assumed he could count on him as an ally. Blessing’s play economically glimpses the inner workings of the court and lays out the cases in which the friendship began to crack. Too, he lingers over the landmark abortion cases that became Blackmun’s signature in nearly 25 years on the court.
Burger felt betrayed by Blackmun’s growing independence. Blackmun came to consider his colleague’s management of the court and his judicial reasoning to be weak. When Burger badgers Blackmun about the latter’s lack of support for a delicate opinion, Lund’s Blackmun savagely pronounces he did so because the work “was incompetent.”
Each man hurt each other often, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes with meanness. Because of their friendship, these wounds cut all the deeper. Blessing’s play shows all the insecurities, the humiliation and the anger. Lund, who takes center stage at the end, is so deeply poignant as he pleads to his old friend, “I’m sorry” for his part in driving the men apart. Fuller’s Burger snaps back, “Do I know you?”
This would be terrific fiction if it weren’t such a painfully real story. It demands to be seen.