Theatre gives us, among other things, the power to find great stories in surprising places. And it’s hard to find a better example this month than over at 1st Stage, where audiences will enter a Tysons Corner strip mall only to find one of the most momentous trials of the twentieth century playing out inside.
1st Stage is one of the best-kept secrets for miles around, as those who have traversed that area’s concrete jungle will tell you, and director Jeremy Skidmore’s new production of John Logan’s drama Never The Sinner is hardy proof. The team has arranged a clean, clear-eyed staging of Logan’s play, scaled just right, that finds compelling ways to draw us into a story full of violence, moral outrage, and courtroom rhetoric without ever losing pace.
Skidmore has a swell track record with contemporary plays that challenge morally and intellectually, and here he leads his cast of actors — all well-tuned and highly appealing — with lively smarts and a graceful touch. It takes a talented group of artists to find the calm and cohesion in a show like this, resisting the temptation to fan big flames when handed a legal drama based on a ‘ripped from the headlines’ true story.
It helps, too, that the script by Logan (who also wrote the two-hander Red about painter Mark Rothko, produced at Arena Stage last season) is assured and perceptive. Written in 1988 while Logan was a student at Northwestern University, Never The Sinner sways thoughtfully between America’s yesterday and today, bringing a simple tangibility to the early twentieth century even as it invites the audience into a twisted maze of righteous logic cradled by the two confessed murderers at the play’s center.
They are Leopold (Stephen Russell Murray) and Loeb (Alex Mandell), two teen millionaires living aimless, privileged lives in Chicago in the summer of 1924. By the time they meet at a boring party, both boys have felt the mind-addling upswing of adolescence kick in, and they quickly come to rely on each other’s friendship. They philosophize with brainiac rigor, trying to work out who they’ll become. A tantalizing adulthood floats right in front of them, and they’re convinced they can reach out and grab it.
Leopold and Loeb’s infatuation with Nietzsche’s notion of the übermensch doesn’t bode well, though. The teenage moment is all too perfect a time to conflate the evolution of self with the evolution of mankind, and the boys soon conclude that they have the potential to stun the world by each becoming a new kind of man: one blissfully removed from the moral and social imperatives of the world, and excused in equal measure from the need to teach, guide, or love others. The übermensch is fully sovereign, capable of anything. Including, naturally, crime.
How this leads, shockingly and messily, to the murder of a 14-year-old neighborhood boy is more emotionally complex than it will seem at first. Nathan Leopold and Robert Loeb, arrested and questioned, admit to the crime. But when big-shot attorney Clarence Darrow (already a favorite character for some, as audience members will remember the 1955 play Inherit The Wind or its later adaptations) is hired as the duo’s defense, the Chicago courtroom prompts a larger discussion of violence and justice — made touchingly relevant and believable by actor Michael Kramer as Darrow.
“To say that Leopold and Loeb were ‘monsters’ is too easy,” writes Logan in his introduction to the script. “To say that they were ‘evil’ is too facile. I find Darrow’s tact more relevant. Leopold and Loeb were human beings. Just like the rest of us. They were tormented. They were brutal. They lacked any true moral, ethical compass. They could not find their way in our sunlit world, so they embraced the darkness. In that darkness, they had only each other.”
Darrow, pitted against prosecutor Robert Crowe (Eric Lucas), unpacks the case methodically and in detail. Even so, the show seems to fly by, thanks to Skidmore’s brisk and confident staging and design. The show is performed, with a dab of chamber-theatre magic, on a period soundstage (handsomely designed by Robbie Hayes) swept clean of pretty much everything except a few chairs, a table far to either side, an occasionally-blinking On Air sign, and a handful of foley props that the actors employ, often into hidden microphones, to create sound effects that include rain, chirping birds, ocean waves, and the rolling slam of a prison door.
Sound designer Eric Shimelonis does great work on every front, not the least of which lies in recreating that period radio-announcer sound — mid-range echoey and flecked with a little sonic dust — for the spoken-word moments on the microphones. For the courtroom scenes he dials up the mic reverb a bit, effectively changing the size of the spaces we’re in throughout the play (the reverb drops away nicely for the more intimate scenes). And the actors remain on stage for nearly the entire play, further adding to the inventive, cooperative vibe of the show.
Never the Sinner
Closes April 14, 2013
1st Stage Theatre
1524 Spring Hill Road
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
Under Skidmore’s eye it all runs nicely, and watching the wheels turn can be rather beautiful. But the show never loses its clarity of purpose. And the play’s treatment of Leopold and Loeb is full of humanity without being overly sympathetic.
Nothing excuses a brutal murder. But it’s especially fascinating to watch how the boys’ two very different personalities begin to emerge, and split, in crisis. “My friendship with him could well cost me my life” muses a worried Leopold, his defenses momentarily lowered.
It may be 90 years after this real-life case made headlines, back when the call to hang the killers drowned out the quiet thoughts of the criminals. But given time, now, what better place than the theatre to sound them?
Never The Sinner by John Logan . Directed by Jeremy Skidmore . Featuring Stephen Russell Murray as Nathan Leopold, Alex Mandell as Richard Loeb and Michael Kramer as Clarence Darrow. The cast also includes Sun King Davis, Adam Downs, Amber Jackson and Eric Lucas. Set design: Robbie Hayes, Costume design: Laree Lentz, Lighting design: Brian Allard, and Sound design: Eric Shimelonis. Dance sequence choreography: Matt Gardiner. Produced by 1st Stage . Reviewed by Hunter Styles.