July 5, 2007

A case of Never the Sinner proves ever fascinating

By David Cannon

I remember the O.J. Simpson trial being called “the trial of the century.” Thing is, it seems that every decade the media proclaims some case “the trial of the century” and some are truly more important than others. As time goes by, we may recognize the names of these cases, but the details get hazy.

Ending the current season at Silver Spring Stage is a smart production of Never the Sinner, which looks at one of the pivotal murder trials of the 20th century – the Leopold and Loeb case. It is a fascinating and thought provoking case, and issues from that trial still reverberate today.

Playwright John Logan expertly handles this complicated case and the issues involved. It is a real life courtroom drama, so the normal rules of an Agatha Christie mystery do not apply. We know who is guilty, but the question becomes why they did it. The answer to that question is critical to the key issue in this case – what to do with the defendants.

Most of Act I centers on the murder itself, and how two smart teenagers with their grandiose ideas right out of Nietzsche would kill young Bobby Franks in cold blood. The second half centers on the trial, which turned out to be one of the big events in the career of famous lawyer Clarence Darrow. Along the way both the insanity defense and the capital punishment arguments get thorough airing.

This is one of those cases that appears so simple on the surface and gets real complicated as you dive into it. Fortunately, director Michael Kharfen understands that and keeps the action moving swiftly while letting the actors fill in the details.

It helps that the two leads are both very good. Ryan Manning as the more introverted and intellectual Nathan Leopold and Sam Ludwig as the more outgoing and seemingly carefree Richard Loeb do a good job portraying the complex and ever-shifting relationship between these two young men. Manning and Ludwig create two characters who are very intelligent, but are still very immature on important matters. They manage to give us a lot of details of these two men and still leave them enigmas.

As we get into the second half, the lawyers take center stage. David Gorsline as prosecutor Robert Crowe and Craig Miller as Darrow seem evenly matched and well skilled in the courtroom scenes. Whatever your opinion about the issue, listen to the closing arguments of these two lawyers: rarely has both sides of the capital punishment debate been presented so clearly and forcefully.

Jacob Yeh, Chris Curtis, and Robin Covington perform well as the ensemble, playing various witnesses and media personalities. This was another case where the media (mostly radio and newspapers) had a field day, constantly demonizing or glamorizing the two young men partially to attract the public. Not that the media would ever do such a thing today. Both Logan’s script and the Stage’s production nicely capture that aspect of the trial as a constant undercurrent in the story.

There is a very functional and complex set by Bruce Starr, which allows for screen projections of various locations throughout the story. Costume coordinator Eric Scerbo does a good job suggesting the flavor of Chicago in the ‘20’s, and there is a very interesting and detailed sound design by Kevin Garrett. On opening night the sound was occasionally too loud and competed too much with the actors, but that is my only real criticism of the production.

The problem is that there can be no justice in a murder case. You steal money from me and a trial should at least give me my money back. Whatever the court does with Leopold and Loeb will never return Bobby Franks to life. So the capital punishment debate and insanity defense continue. After nearly a century, the questions raised in this murder case are still being argued and may never get resolved.

If you get the chance, see the neglected Alfred Hitchcock film Rope, which is loosely based on this same story. The movie is totally different from the play, but it’s still fascinating.

Never the Sinner continues at Silver Spring Stage through July 22. For more information on the current show or the 2007-2008 season, call (301) 593-6036 or visit their website at www.ssstage.org.