Theatre gives us, among other things, the power to find great stories in surprising places. And it’s hard to find a better example of this than was recently at Golden West College’s Mainstage Theater in Huntington Beach, where audiences witnessed one of the most momentous trials of the twentieth century playing right inside.
Director Tom Amen’s production of John Logan’s drama Never The Sinner is a clean, clear-eyed staging of Logan’s play, scaled just right, that found compelling ways to draw us into a story full of violence, moral outrage, and courtroom rhetoric without ever losing pace. It told the story of two very privileged, very young men and their cynical, random crime that intriguingly lacks a traditional sense of motive. It was a "social experiment," a "philosophical exercise."
This was a tale about Richard Loeb (Alex Jean), insouciant and narcissistic, who enjoyed being seen as a criminal mastermind - and Nathan Leopold, Jr. (Matthew Cobb) with his psycho-homoerotic obsession, who felt that Loeb's brilliance "reflects on me and makes me beautiful too." Throw in the public's fascinated outrage, the ensuing media circus reporters (Brad Vinikow, Carrie Vinikow and Julie Kirkman), the state's attorney’s Bob Crowe (Matt Koutroulis) reasoned popular arguments, and finally Clarence Darrow's (Scott Keister) strategy for the defense. And you've got a play that won't quit! Or I should say acquit.
As Leopold and Loeb, Cobb and Jean were exceptional. There is no other way to describe their performance. Their chemistry leading up to the inevitable gay ‘shock kiss’ (which the audience was both surprised by but was also waiting for) is completely believable and fully realized. If a play could be said to have three climaxes, this was one of them. The other two: The Murder and the Verdict—although arguably the Verdict is the resolution, but it’s very climactic. The complexity of their motive, the compulsion of love/lust, the weight of their circumstances came through in the tones and facial/body work.
Leopold and Loeb truly lived again in the bodies and minds of these two young actors. And although Jean seemed at first glance to be the stronger actor of the two, we soon realize that this effect was entirely intentional. Loeb was the dominant, the instigator, the de-facto murderer. Cobb plays more subtle, tortured, and complex. When he thinks about the murder, he is capable of smiling, and with that smile, he shows sadness. And when the two of them are in a vehicle which we see with our own eyes are simply stage chairs and the murder takes place, we cringe! We turn away! There is no car, there is no victim, nevertheless, there they are and we cringe. It’s gruesome effective mime. But that’s simply just good acting, isn’t it.
And then, Act II, the trial. Our two attorneys: for the defense, Clarence Darrow (the excellent Scotty Keister). For the prosecution, Robert Crowe (Matt Koutroulis channeling Perry Mason). The actor’s eye noted the extreme contrast between these two men, one the confident laid back ‘I got this!’ attorney and the other, the goal hungry press-happy ‘You got nothin!’ These actors used their bodies and voices to show us these differing traits. It truly was a second act because the subtext of the love story and crime is the story of Clarence Darrow and his passionate pitch to spare the lives of the young killers. In law circles, this summation (over 12 hours in the actual event) is considered one of the most eloquent defenses ever made in the history of law, and that the two boys—gay as they were in the context of 1920s Chicago morality—got life instead of death. The penultimate scene, wherein the teenage criminal masterminds finally reveal their insecurities, is as heartbreaking as it is redeeming.
The set was minimalist. A few podiums and bench-like boxes on the floor, and a few chairs. Every prop in the play was set out in advance and visible to the audience. During the ‘dim-outs’ between units, we were able to see the actors arrange the chairs one way and another; now we have a car, now we are in a court room, now a library, then a baseball park, a movie theatre, classroom, all suggested by chairs and the focus and atmosphere set by the actors. Lighting in this production was outstanding and cut great stage pictures out of the actors with long shadows that set the tone during the trial.
Leopold and Loeb fascinated even as they repulsed. The attractive, charming Loeb seemed soulless but then is let down when his mother won't have anything to do with him as Chicagoans call for his hanging; she seems to be the one person on the earth who he doesn't want to disappoint. Leopold's mother died when he was younger, and he's painted as a ruthlessly academic, learned young man with a fierce romantic bent to boot.
“Never The Sinner,” was scenic designed by Tim Mueller, costume and makeup by Jojo Siu, with lighting by Crystal Shomph and sound design by Veronica Mullins. Stage manager was Kylie Mae Schilhab. The show, which ran from October 6th through the 15th, marks the first show of this season. If you didn’t get the chance to see it (yesterday night was the last day of their 10-day run), then you missed a real winner!
National Youth Theatre www.theshowreport.org