A Passion for Justice: The Clarence Darrow Story
by Jack Marshall and Paul Morella
directed by Jack Marshall
produced by The American Century Theater & Clarence Darrow Productions
reviewed by Steven McKnight
There’s an old saying that the secret to success for a trial lawyer is sincerity – if you can fake that, the rest is easy. A close second is passion and the aptly named A Passion for Justice: The Clarence Darrow Story has an abundance of both qualities thanks to a quality script and a memorable performance by Paul Morella.
The traditional Clarence Darrow as presented in film and theatre (including the late Henry Fonda’s 1974 one-man film Clarence Darrow) is an attractive and amiable heroic figure – not only dramatically boring but historically incomplete. The real Clarence Darrow is a far more interesting character and this production has the courage to present him in an honest manner, warts and all.
Darrow could be a charmer, but he was no saint as Morella quickly makes clear. He grew up craving the love of a distant father. The pain of his childhood created a great empathy in him for poor, the weak, and the helpless that he saw as oppressed by the law as wielded by the powerful. It also created a man who welcomed the love of many women and one who was willing to undertake whatever was necessary to win, even jury tampering in one famous case that almost ended Darrow’s legal career prematurely.
Darrow was a master of evoking higher principles in defending lesser men and most of this show involves actual word-for-word recitations of his famous summations. Marshall’s smart script blends effortlessly in these excerpts from famous Darrow cases and Morella delivers the remarks with deep, heartfelt emotion. Listening to Morella it is easy to understand why in a simpler time people would travel from miles around to hear Darrow’s speeches inside and outside of a courtroom.
The fact that Paul Morella has portrayed Darrow off and on since 2000 is hardly surprising given his smooth, flawless portrayal seen here. This production is a rarity among solo shows in that Morella is completely in command of his character and of the audience every single moment. Whether he is telling jokes, recounting facts of Darrow’s life, or making a legal argument from one of Darrow’s many famous cases, Morella has the audience in the palm of his hand just as surely as Darrow exercised his legendary sway over a jury.
Among the famous cases included are the Loeb & Leopold case, where two young teenagers kidnapped and a killing of a boy to prove that they could be Nietzschean supermen. Darrow helped them avoid the death penalty, a punishment he opposed on principle in dozens of cases. He also represented a young schoolteacher accused of teaching evolution in what became known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” the first trial every broadcast over radio.
A few other famous Darrow cases round out the evening. One of the most moving involves the trial of Dr. Ossian Sweet and his family. Hundreds came to intimidate the African-American Sweet for daring to move into a white neighborhood and a shot from one of eleven people inside the home killed a man. Darrow explains how society inculcates racial ideas into children and the fact that we are all bundles of prejudices, but the best we can do is to try and rise above those prejudices. It is a gripping speech and Morella captures just the right balance of idealism and cynicism to make it work.
It is not necessary to share all of Darrow’s civil libertarian views to find this evening fascinating and thought-provoking. You leave the theatre pondering both the tensions in society on these issues and the contradictions in the character of this extraordinary man.
Running Time: 1:40 (one intermission).
Where: Gaithersburg Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg, MD.
When: Through October 19. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $19-25. For more information and tickets call 301-258-6394 or go online.