Never the Sinner
Presented by Actors Bridge Ensemble
Through July 29 at St. Augustine’s Chapel, Vanderbilt Univ.
For tickets, call 341-0300
Bourbon at the Border
Presented by Tennessee State University Summer Stock Theatre
Through July 28 at Poag Auditorium, Tennessee State University
For tickets., call 255-9600
If summer is a time for doldrums, you wouldn’t know it from local theatrical activity. Two very serious productions opened this past weekend, and although these offerings achieve varying degrees of success, each features performances strong enough to merit a look from theatergoers.
Daring, provocative, repulsive, twisted, patheticthese are a few of the adjectives that spring to mind after viewing Actors Bridge Ensemble’s Never the Sinner. Such is the nature of John Logan’s well-crafted script, which re-creates the events surrounding the 1924 slaying of a young Chicago boy by the infamous Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, only teenagers themselves. It’s a gruesome tale, and the case that came before the judge, with none other than the great Clarence Darrow for the defense, was the original “Trial of the [20th] Century.”
This story was told most prominently years back in Meyer Levin’s fictionalized treatment, Compulsion, which was later filmed in 1959, starring Bradford Dillman, Dean Stockwell, and Orson Welles. Logan’s version is nonfictional all the way, and, in some ways, it’s a true-crime buff’s dream play. But Logan goes well beyond the “just the facts, ma’am” approach, offering usquite efficiently, actuallya sense of time and place (Capone’s Chicago of the ’20s) and a harrowing view of the Leopold-Loeb relationship (almost too twisted to be believed, much less understood).
The ensemble work of the Actors Bridge company is mostly first-rate. More importantly, director Bill Feehely has two talented and charismatic young actors playing the arrogant, spoiled, rich-boy murderers. Nashville seems to be gifted presently with some interesting talent among the younger male ranks, and Christopher Browne and Clay Steakley exemplify this. Browne’s dark, brooding portrayal of the tightly wound Dickie Loeb is intense throughout, and sometimes scary. This characterization is balanced against Steakley’s “Babe” Leopold, a performance that seems remarkably organic and hence particularly notable. Steakley convincingly projects Leopold’s intellectual brilliance, his cold carelessness about people he considers ordinary, and the calculating yet almost casual mind-set that allows him to go along with Loeb’s dastardly, sick predilections. The homosexual angle is tackled head-on but tastefully here, in what is certainly an adult piece of theater.
There’s only one Actor’s Equity cast member, and that’s Mark Tankersley as prosecuting attorney Robert Crowe. He’s excellent too: tough, soldierly, committed. Rob Wilds gets a passing grade as Darrow. I wanted to like him more. But maybe what I really wanted was for him to make me like him more. This did not happen. He blusters more often than he puts passion and meaning behind his words.
The supporting players are generally terrific, and their presence adds immeasurably to the ambience and the pace. Jumping in and out of the action as various reporters, witnesses, and incidental characters are Holly Allen, Milton Bagby, and Ivan Everitt.
Don Griffiths’ set is simple, yet it hints subtlyand ironicallyat topical matters, with motley set decorations such as an American flag, boxing gloves, a statue of “Lady Justice,” a teddy bear, an old camera, a ’20s-era microphone, etc. Amy Chomsky’s costumes, while not elaborate or necessarily eye-grabbing, are notable as well for their authentic period feel. A “newsreel style” lighting effect is used throughout to enhance the quick scene changes. It’s unspectacular but accomplishes its task.
Never the Sinner is taut, smartly written drama, and this very well executed production is highly recommended for anyone looking for a top-flight theatrical experience. It’s pretty strong stuff, though. Consider yourself warned.
Meanwhile, Pearl Cleage’s Bourbon at the Border is an issues-oriented play concerning African Americans in latter-day Detroit who are dealing with middle age and the memories of the tumultuous events of the ’60s, including the civil rights movement and Vietnam. There’s plenty of interesting sociologically themed writing here, but Cleage’s script is somewhat of a structural puzzle. Act 1 is way too longor at least seemed so in the Tennessee State University production. There’s plenty of material in Act 2 that is meaty indeedrevenge murder, racism, clinical depression, lost hopes and dreamsyet the revelations come upon us rather suddenly and seem forced. Cleage’s play is interesting, to be sure, but it also seems in need of a rewriteto focus more economically on the characters, the ripe subject matter, and the dramatic action.
Four actors tackle the material with mixed results. The standout performance is by Tracey Bonner, who, as Rosa, effectively moves back and forth from lively party girl to devoted friend. Frederick Harris also gives an animated performance as Rosa’s boyfriend, Tyrone. The lead charactersof whom most of the weighty acting is requiredare played by Angela White and G. Thaddeus Flowers. They have their moments as married couple May and Charlie, but their youth does show, especially considering that they are playing characters who are about 30 years older than they are.
Barry Scott directs, yet the show doesn’t appear to have a very strong directorial imprint, especially with regard to the pacing. He does seem to have put quite a bit of thought into the selection of incidental music, though, which is mostly a pop/R&B festival of oldies and more contemporary sounds. The set, attributed to Mill Creek Associates, offers an interesting view of Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, leading over to Windsor, Ontario, and representing a kind of escape from America to the peaceful, carefree life so desired by the play’s troubled characters.
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