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Chicago by John Olson

Execution of Justice
About Face Theatre Company

Execution of Justice
Steve Key
It's hard to fathom that a city whose mayor challenged state law by granting some 4000 marriage licenses to gay and Lesbian couples was not always a bastion of gay acceptance and visibility. As Emily Mann's Execution of Justice tells us, San Francisco in the late 1970s was in the late stages of transition to its current political and social climate from a much more conservative one. It was a transition the old guard apparently had much trouble accepting. When a former member of the city's Board of Supervisors, who had been a swing vote for its more conservative element, assassinated the city's liberal Mayor George Moscone and its openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk, Moscone and Milk became tragic heroes and the assassin Dan White a notorious murderer.

Execution of Justice, produced briefly on Broadway in 1986, is a docudrama about the trial of Dan White that is most concerned about the reasons for White's crime and the judicial system's verdict convicting him of the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder. The playwright's sympathies are squarely with Moscone, Milk and the gay community. The defense attorney's assertions are played (by Sean Fortunato) as comical, and White's "Twinkie Defense" which claimed White was driven to murder under the influence of a junk food diet that exacerbated his mental instability is reflected in a satirical visual of White standing heroically atop a Hostess Twinkie projected on an upstage bank of video monitors. And when Mann includes quotes from random citizens, the comments of those saddened by the slayings are given more emotional weight than the comments of those more sympathetic to White. Still, Mann stealthily gets us to consider a more nuanced view of the assassinations. Might White's crimes been caused as much (or even more) by his depression as by a last-ditch power grab for the dying political elite? Is it ever possible to entirely divorce the personal from the political? White is clearly portrayed as disturbed, but he is also seen as a representative member of the community segments that felt so threatened by the new political power of gays and liberals.

The "justice" of the title is also clearly shown to have been controlled by the old guard who still had dominion over the courts. The judge is more sympathetic to White and his preposterous defense attorney than to the hapless and exasperated prosecutor (John Judd). A jury is selected that includes no gays. Still, the merits of the case against White aren't entirely solid either. Certainly White's entry into City Hall the day of the shootings with a firearm - avoiding a security check by crawling through an open window, and his acts of shooting Moscone and Milk in the head several times - make a strong case for premeditation. Then again, the guy is clearly not well, and, according to his wife Mary Ann in a scene quite convincingly and touchingly played by Amy Matheny, has been sick for some time. Should the jury's verdict really have been such a slam-dunk against White? Maybe, maybe not.

As provocative and multi-layered as it is, Execution of Justice is a flawed play. The courtroom drama is frequently talky, has little of an arc, and at two hours ten minutes, seems longer than that. Its points are thoughtful but made too early and too often. Still, Director Gary Griffin, back in Off-Loop theater for the moment after his second Broadway hit with The Apple Tree, wrings as much theatricality out of it as anyone could. He gets funny and touching performances from his cast, starting with Steve Key, a dead ringer for White in a '70s polyester suit and sideburns. Key is able to switch between the depressed White and the earlier, healthier politician who charmed voters to the accompaniment of the "Theme from Rocky." He sits center stage throughout most of the action as if in a defendant's box and manages to keep his distressed demeanor evident without being distracting to the other action on stage. Keith Kupferer plays a number of redneck characters in the manner of Jim Belushi or George Wendt, with comic charm that doesn't stoop to comment on the characters. Larry Neumann, Jr. has a great monologue as the district attorney criticized for his handling of the case.

Griffin keeps the action at a brisk pace, and stages it with the efficiency of cinematic editing when not held back by some of Mann's long monologues. Brian Sidney Bembridge's set is a neutral and cold-looking grid of brushed steel. At its center is a matrix of video monitors which in Logan Kibens' video design present scenes performed by the cast as well as documentary footage from the film The Times of Harvey Milk. The supporting cast members who play a multitude of smaller parts are accurately wardrobed in a multitude of costumes designed by Janice Pytel, and the atmospheric sound design by Andre Pluess helps to set a mood of time travel that allows us to not only return to 1978, but jump around in time nonlinearly within that general era.

California has long been a bellwether for the U.S., and this decisive 1978 battle in San Francisco's culture war between the gay community and those who opposed it may foretell a similar battle on a national scale yet to occur. The culture wars are still with us in 2007. For that matter, in 2007 even the theme from Rocky is still with us.

Execution of Justice will be performed Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 & 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through February 18th, at the Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theatre, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. Tickets ($20-$40) can be purchased by calling 773.871.3000 or visiting www.aboutfacetheatre.com.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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