Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
A Passion for Justice: An Encounter with Clarence Darrow
Also see Susan's review of Dirty Blonde
Washington actor Paul Morella has been doing various versions of his one-man performance as Clarence Darrow for about a decade now, and his current appearance in A Passion for Justice: An Encounter with Clarence Darrow at Maryland's Olney Theatre Center shows a powerful actor totally comfortable in the skin of a legendary character.
Morella and director Jack Marshall co-wrote and developed the original version of the work in 1999, when rights issues prevented them from staging a different one-man drama based on the life of the famed early 20th-century criminal attorney. Since that time, they have worked together to hone and polish the work. Morella comes from a family of lawyershis mother formerly served in Congress in Marylandand Marshall is both an attorney and artistic director of American Century Theatre in Arlington, Virginia.
Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) became famous during his lifetime for his devotion to civil liberties cases; today he is probably best known for his role in the Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925, taking up the cause of teaching evolution against William Jennings Bryan, who argued against challenging the biblical creation story. (The play and movie Inherit the Wind is a fictionalized version of the case.) Darrow also gained notoriety for his 1924 defense of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two intelligent, wealthy teenagers whofor no reason but to demonstrate what they believed was their superior naturekidnapped and killed an 8-year-old boy. Darrow admitted the guilt of the defendants, but he fought successfully to save them from the death penalty.
However, the man was no saint. Morella's Darrow expresses regrets over the pain he caused his two wives, not to mention the other women who loved him; he describes how he relied on courtroom tricks and cleverness to win cases until he began wanting to do better. The turning point came when he faced charges of bribery and jury tampering, when he had to decide what he wanted his life to mean.
Morella plays to the audience as if it were a jury, delighting in his own jokes and hard-won wisdom. (One of the most trenchant is "History repeats itself. That's the problem with history.") Cristina Todesco's setconsisting of heaps of law books, an unsteady table, and a precarious-looking walland Andrew Cissna's atmospheric lighting design provide a visually interesting setting for his performance.
Olney Theatre Center