The decade characterized by its counter culture, rock and roll hedonism and civil rights movement would take a good few years from its onset to fully take shape. The early sixties, in many ways a covetous extension of the previous decade, were shaped by wars in East Asia, Cold War paranoia, the menace of nuclear attack, the rapid growth of science and technology and the long fallout from WWII. Post-Holocaust, unavoidable questions continued to be posed privately, publicly and in the many disciplines of research. What kind of people could send such large numbers of fellow humans to their deaths? How valid or truthful was the oft said justification of "just following orders"?
Step forward social psychologist Stanley Milgram. The Milgram Experiment m.o., which continues to spawn movies, books, documentaries and ongoing debate, was to convince a number of unwitting volunteer Yale students in "the teacher" role, to administer electric shocks upon an individual, "the learner", who failed to respond correctly to a series of simple word association questions. Unbeknownst to those dispensing the shocks, the experimentee was in on it and merely feigning a response of audible, soaring pain.
In Please Continue, presented by the Ensemble Studio Theater in partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, playwright Frank Basloe has constructed a morality play by interlinking a fictional story with two separate historical events that took place at Yale University more than fifty years ago, the test runs for Professor Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments and a campus scandal.
Overshadowed by Jason Simms' deliberately austere, wooden collegiate scenic design, chemistry major James Sanders (David Edward Jackson), "the experimenter", is selected by Milgram (Haskell King) to assist with and supervise his "action conformity" study. Sanders is to collect data and in the event of hesitancy in his subjects, his instructions should never deviate from "Please continue", "The experiment requires that you continue" and similar plain demands. The learner, Saul Dashoff (Jonathan Randell Silver), at first jovial about the study, soon persuades Sanders into questioning his integrity and his role as an additional, conceivable Milgram pawn, especially after witnessing the mental anguish suffered by volunteer Harold Burden (Alex Herrald). Meanwhile, Francis Dunleavy (Jared McGuire), a student battling with his conscience over his involvement in a college campus incident of shame and disrepute, seeks answers from the Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin (Tommy Schrider), his dishonored accomplice Mitchell (Dylan Dawson) and his fiancée Margaret (Molly Carden).
These dual storylines tackle the various aspects of cruelty in conformity with considerable intelligence. The largely conversational vignettes, though philosophical, are nevertheless captivating. Subtle humor is carefully allocated while acutely written dialogue and a smart ensemble cast play with the topics of doubt and discovery with powerful sensitivity. Director William Carden, also EST's artistic director, gracefully draws humanity from self-analysis and poignancy from complexity. Please Continue is an ambitious undertaking that befits Milgram's scientific premise. Its thought provoking results deserve further investigation. A must see.