It’s a bird, it’s a plane. No, it’s Clarence Darrow. America’s superlawyer of the 20th century is the focus in Clarence Darrow’s Last Trial, a drama by Shirley Lauro receiving its world premiere at New Theatre in Coral Gables. Darrow is dead center as he comes out of retirement to help another misbegotten client.
The last trial takes place in two places, Chicago and Honolulu, and the year is 1931. Darrow (John Felix) is returning from a consultation when he is summoned to Hawaii by a Navy lieutenant (John Bixler), who, along with his mother-in-law (Angie Radosh), has been charged with murder. With encouragement from his optimistic wife Ruby (Susan Dempsey), Darrow decides to take the soldier’s case.
When Darrow gets to the island, he is greeted by Lt. Ramsey, his wife Theodie (Jenny Levine) and her mother, Mrs. Montegu. Ramsey explains what happened on the night he killed the mastermind of a gang assault on Theodie. Darrow wants to use the plea of temporary insanity in Ramsey’s defense, but Mrs. Montegu is disturbed by it. When Mrs. Montegu leaves, Ramsey and Theodie coax Darrow into keeping the plea while they try to talk Mrs. Montegu down.
While staying in Hawaii, Darrow encounters an opportunistic reporter, Tommy Lu (Ricky J. Martinez). Darrow also faces his most daunting nemesis in the guise of Naniloa Whitefield Chan (Tara Vodihn), a “lady law,” which is the island’s definition of a female attorney. She is a prosecutor of mixed heritage. Though she is honored to meet Darrow, Naniloa is annoyed by the media circus he brings to her quiet island. This gives her the fuel to take him on.
Shirley Lauro’s tall tale involves mystery, pride and prejudice. This takes place in a time when Hawaii didn’t have statehood and was still considered a republic. The affluent Ramseys look down on the natives. This all comes to a head in the courtroom, where secrets are revealed. While all the aforementioned elements are known for good drama, they doesn’t necessarily prove results.
There is a disadvantage to Lauro’s plot structure. She puts too much time into dream-like communications between characters. Case in point: when Ramsey is speaking to Darrow overseas, the actors stand face front, giving their lines out. It is an annoyance in a play that wants to be a drama, but should be more rooted in reality. They had phones back in 1931 - use them!
Though Lauro uses fantasy-like sequences, she also has great skills as a writer. The climax is very well hidden until Darrow realizes he is a pawn in a cunning chess game. Regretfully, the payoff is unsatisfying, and we are left with senseless epilogues from the characters.
The production aspects are more positive. Rich Simone’s design of two sides unfolding into a bottom deck of a ship, which also can be used as a courtroom, is very ambitious. Simone’s design is a powerful presence that Michael Foster’s lights can’t handle, though the lighting helps in the duet scenes.
Which brings us to the ensemble that brings Lauro’s yarn to the stage. Rafael de Acha’s cast is a good lot, infusing energy and grounding in the script. John Bixler (Lt. Ramsey) and Jenny Levine (Theodie Ramsey) make the cutest Southern couple we’ve ever seen. Bixler uses his face and mannerisms to define Ramsey as a man who seems innocent on the outside but can tap into his dark place at any moment. Levine is dedicated as the sweet, victimized wife, even up to her moment on the stand.
Angie Radosh is brilliant as the calculating mother-in-law, Mrs. Montegu. Radosh portrays her as sweet as a Georgia peach on one hand and the in-law from hell on the other. There is a balance to Radosh’s motive: making Mrs. Montegu the highest influence of all on this case. As Darrow’s spouse Ruby, Susan Dempsey lends a Pollyannaesque quality while standing by her man. Always optimistic, Ruby believes “D” will get the job done.
Weak links are few: Bill Schwartz as the nervous psychologist, Dr. Stein doesn’t seem to find a medium and Ricky J. Martinez comes off cartoonish as independent anchorman Tommy Lu. Comic relief is one thing, but using a faux Asian accent and a bad wig doesn’t make an authentic Hawaiian. (Note: Martinez has been newly appointed as associate artistic director; hopefully, he will bounce back when he starts using his own influence next season.)
The outstanding performers in this piece are aptly on both sides of the spectrum. John Felix is staunch in his portrayal of Clarence Darrow. Felix uses his body to convey Darrow’s weariness. As a warrior who still has fight left in him, Felix’s Darrow comes off more Ben Matlock than Perry Mason. This is not necessarily a bad thing as Felix instills in Darrow a sense of optimism. But when Darrow realizes his real role in this case, Felix rises like a storm on his betrayers, making Darrow a powerful presence.
As Naniloa Whitefield Chan, Tara Vodihn handles the Hawaiian dialect better. She shines as a Moriarty to Darrow’s Sherlock Holmes. We see in Naniloa a native who is determined to get justice for one of her fallen brothers, no matter what their shortcomings were. We see the anger and frustration resulting from Americans having invaded her space. Vodihn telegraphs this clearly through her walk and speech. And when Naniloa finds out the outcome of the verdict, she erupts like a volcano, something Vodihn proved she could pull off a year ago in The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women (Women’s Theatre Project). One shortcoming, though, is Vodihn’s tendency to give dialogue upstage during her cross. That can easily be remedied by acquiring evidence before speaking.
Shirley Lauro has written a piece that can be used as high-powered drama, but different tools need to be put in to resonate more. Clarence Darrow was a powerful presence in the courtroom and his record speaks volumes, but in this case, he should have gotten a draw to complete his legacy. All in all, a very good start for a promising script.
Clarence Darrow’s Last Trial continues deliberations at New Theatre until February 20th. The address is 4120 Laguna Street in Coral Gables. For tickets, please call (305) 443-5909.
NEW THEATRE - Clarence Darrow’s Last Trial
Cast: John Felix, John Bixler, Angie Radosh,
Set Design: Rich Simone
Directed by Rafael de Acha
-- Kevin Johnson