Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Never The Sinner
Also see Richard's recent review of The Royale
It's not "unknown" whether Richard Loeb killed Bobby Franks with the help of Nathan Leopold in 1924that part is known. It was called the crime of the century in its day, because of the stunning coldness of the deed and the fabulously unlikely defendants, two young men from Chicago's upper class. Their case also made headlines by featuring the brilliant Clarence Darrow as defense attorney. He'd go on to defend a teacher in what was known as the Scopes Monkey Trial the following year. Here, deeply personal flashbacks heighten the level of suspense as the teenagers search for a victim, and raise a stranger kind of intrigue as both grow up through the process of the murder trial itself. It's a coming-of-age that never should have happened, but did.
Rick Dildine, of the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, directs, invisibly guiding us through the deep burrowing nature of deception and manipulation within Loeb, and the seemingly innocent loyalty and adoration he gets from Leopold, which helped enable the crime.
Pete Winfrey (as Loeb) and Jack Zanger (as Leopold) are exemplary throughout, going to a dark, remote space, perfect for murder. Their scenes together are a startling mix of the childlike and bizarre. Emboldened by Frederick Nietzsche's theory of the Uberman, they vainly imagine themselves above the common rules of society. In young Loeb's hands, Nietzsche becomes a roadmap to sociopathy.
This was John Logan's first produced play, in 1985. He went on to write I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers and Red (about Mark Rothko), as well as movies including Skyfall and Gladiator. Never The Sinner features powerful courtroom speeches boiled-down from the actual transcripts, here with John Flack doing his best work to date as the usually stolid Darrow, confounded to the point of outrage by the smug evasiveness of his clients, and the outstanding Eric Dean White in the lesser (historically) role, as state prosecutor Robert Crowe. The two men spar on a high level of reasoning, with clever courtroom tactics, even as the defendants themselves disappear into the thin air of mystery.
The whole play is brought off with a light touch. The "chorus" roles of headline-barking newspapermen are likewise filled by remarkable actors who take on multiple roles: Maggie Conroy is intriguing on the witness stand as one of Loeb's flapper-type girlfriends, whose self-awareness is just tantalizingly out of reach; John Reidy adds avuncular layers to expert testimony as a psychiatrist; and Will Bonfiglio weaves emotions of bafflement and amazement together in a one-on-one interview with Loeb.
The show gets a lavish visual treatment thanks to another breathtaking set by Peter and Margery Spack, putting us inside the mind of Nathan Leopold and his fascination with ornithology. The design suggests that much of the play exists in Leopold's own head, with a final flashback that raises questions about the ultimate guilt of each boy.
And it's yet another great show for light-plotting this season, with strange interpersonal moments illuminated by Maureen Berry, and nice touches with fade-ups and fade-downs at strategic moments. Local awards judges will have a tough choice to make this year, after the lighting designs for Follies, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, and this one too, where all the answers to mystery are hashed together in the memories of one or both defendants.
Through April 2, 2017, at the Jewish Community Center, just west of Lindbergh Rd. on Scheutz. For more information visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association
** Denotes Member, Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers