Sunday, November 22, 2015

'Never the Sinner' Provides Compelling Look at Chicago History, Criminal and Theatrical -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Never the Sinner
by John Logan
Directed by Gary Griffin
Victory Gardens Theater (at the Biograph), Chicago
Thru December 6

Few criminal acts, and resulting trials, loom as large in Chicago lore as Leopold & Loeb's abduction and murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924.

I have long heard the basics about this grisly episode, with the crime all the more heinous due to the brazen assumption by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb--wealthy, handsome, brilliant University of Chicago students in love with each other--that they were committing the perfect crime...and couldn't be caught.

But other than some Wikipedia forays, I've never much explored the incident, trial or individuals involved, whether through articles, books, movies, documentaries, plays, etc.; my friend Dave, who accompanied me to the theater on Thursday night, recommends the 1959 film Compulsion.

So I was intrigued to see Never the Sinner, a drama about Leopold & Loeb, their relationship, the planning and predominantly the trial, at which they were represented by the famed attorney, Clarence Darrow.

Adroitly telling the story through various non-linear scenes, the play itself is quite good, especially in having been the first written by John Logan, while a Northwestern student in the early 1980s.

It was initially staged at the school, then at Chicago's now-defunct Stormfield Theater in 1985 and 10 years later for the first time by Victory Gardens, which would debut other Logan plays.

Given that Logan would become one of the most successful playwrights--and then screenwriters--to develop within and excel beyond Chicago, seeing his first work also made for a compelling history lesson.

Logan's writing credits are mighty impressive--plays Hauptmann, Scorched Earth and Red, among others; many movies including Gladiator, Any Given Sunday, The Last Samurai, The Aviator, Sweeney Todd, Hugo and the James Bond films Skyfall and Spectre; the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, which he created; and the book for The Last Ship musical--and as he notes in a Never the Sinner program interview, he's often been drawn to monstrous characters.

Which he certainly painted Leopold & Loeb to be, with their belief that they represented Nietzsche's concept of supermen (a.k.a. Übermenschen), which Wikipedia describes as: transcendent individuals, possessing extraordinary and unusual capabilities, whose superior intellects allowed them to rise above the laws and rules that bound the unimportant, average populace.

I don't know if it is clinically accurate to call them sociopaths, but as embodied by Japhet Balaban as gawkish, stodgy Nathan Leopold and Jordan Brodress as the more slickly salesmanish Richard Loeb, there is certainly a considerable chill to their imperious scheming, and even their dialogue once caught and on trial.

But as Logan's title comes from the line--appropriating an age old phrase--"I may hate the sin but never the sinner," what helps make the drama work so well is that it isn't merely a condemnation of monsters, but a look at more sympathetic aspects of the perpetrators, who at 18 and 19 were just kids themselves, and gay long before it was openly acceptable.

Unless I missed it--I must admit to some droopy eyelids and split focus following a long, distressing workday--I wasn't clear how Clarence Darrow came to be involved in the case (Wikipedia notes that they he was hired by Loeb's parents, perhaps for $1 million), but local stalwart Keith Kupferer embodies him well, powerfully intoning Darrow's 12-hour courtroom plea in less than 1/60th the time.

Derek Hasenstab well plays the prosecutor, and Celeste M. Cooper is good embodying both a newspaper reporter and a would-be paramour of Leopold's.

Not represented onstage is Bobby Franks, the 14-year-old second cousin of Loeb's, who the pair gruesomely and audaciously murdered. So while Logan's deft if specific script--i.e. any commentary on more contemporary criminals or acts is supplied mainly by the mind of the viewer, endlessly apt as it may be--mitigates some sense that Leopold & Loeb were pure evil, the perspective of the victim and his family is never portrayed.

One never knows if Logan might've written Never the Sinner a bit differently with more maturity, but not only had he clearly done his research, the dramatic devices he uses throughout the 90-minute one-act are rather impressive, with time shifts enhancing rather than confusing the narrative.

This Victory Gardens production is in good stead under the direction of Gary Griffin, another Chicagoan who has also gone on to national prominence.

That the play is being staged at the Biograph Theater, now home to Victory Gardens but long a movie house famed for being the last place visited by John Dillinger before he was gunned down by FBI agents just outside, only adds to the sense of Chicago history converging--whether in the realm of criminal justice or theatrical greatness.

Given all the marquee names involved, including that of Victory Gardens Theater itself, long one of Chicago's most renowned companies, I was surprised at how many empty seats there were on Thursday night.

But the likelihood of discount tickets--through either Goldstar of HotTix--should make it even more appealing and conducive to appreciate a harrowing and theatrically compelling part of Chicago's past.

In the present.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Bobby Franks body was found in a culvert in Wolf Lake on the far southeast side of Chicago, right on the Indiana border.