Before last Saturday night's performance of his new play, Jane Fonda in the Court of Public Opinion, Terry Jastrow greeted the audience at the Edgemar Center for the Arts with an explanation of how his play was conceived.

To tell the story of Jane Fonda as actress and activist, Jastrow said he visited Hanoi to retrace her controversial steps during the Vietnam War, in order to better understand what might have been said in a Waterbury, Conn., Episcopal church in 1988 — the play's setting — when Fonda (Anne Archer) appeared before a group of military vets to make peace in the wake of her outspoken criticism of the war 15 years prior. Jastrow especially wanted to find out about Fonda's politically explosive Hanoi visit, when she donned a battle helmet, waved and beamed while perched on the kind of North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun used to blast American B-52s out of the sky. She also met with U.S. prisoners of war, gaining access where their relatives couldn't.

The purpose of Fonda's subsequent 1988 visit to Waterbury was to win local support for using the town as a location for the movie Stanley and Iris with Robert De Niro, and there was no recording of what happened in that church hall.

The jury of the “court” in Jastrow's play is us, assessing the distinctions between one woman's courage and recklessness, between muckraking and endangering of our troops, and between freedom of speech and sedition.

Before she started making workout tapes and married Ted Turner, Jane Fonda was the kind of figure who comes along once or twice in a generation, like Michael Moore today, capable of turning national tides of perception through a combination of myopia, relentless evidence and confidence and an exalted defiance that borders on insanity and yet contains cuttingly sharp shards of truth.

This is why the topic of Jastrow's play, co-directed by Michelle Danner, is so hypnotic — more so than the play itself, or this production of it. An oversize vintage TV set looms over the center of Chris Stone's church hall set. On that screen beams archival footage to which the “conversations” refer, conversations with vets from two wars (Terrence Beasor, Mark Gadbois, Robert Foster, Jonathan Kells Phillips and Don Swayze) moderated by Reverend John (Steve Voldseth). The way their initial hostility softens is a bit like in Twelve Angry Men, but with fuzzy and sometimes implausible reasons for why some of their passions would suddenly tilt in Fonda's favor.

That Fonda is there to make peace in order to make a movie is grist for those who carp on her almost aristocratic privilege. For this reason, even Archer's dignified and articulate portrayal has a slightly conniving angle to it. The play's ultimate stakes are so low, compared to risks Fonda took in the 1970s, and the hatred she generated.

To see what was really at stake, check out the 1972 interview between Fonda and Phil Donahue on YouTube. Her words are much like the text in Jastrow's play, but a war is raging, and you feel the tension in and around the room, through the very articulate questions and complaints hurled at Fonda by the audience, and the dignity with which she fields them. Those clips are the portrait of an era that this play is aiming for.

JANE FONDA IN THE COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION | By Terry Jastrow | Presented by Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; some added perfs Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; call for schedule | Through Dec. 4 | (310) 392-7327 |

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