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Never the Sinner
by John Logan
Directed by Rick Dildine
New Jewish Theatre
March 16, 2017

Pete Winfrey, Jack Zanger
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Never the Sinner is a highly disturbing play. It’s also extremely fascinating. On stage now in a riveting production from New Jewish Theatre, John Logan’s play about the infamous crime duo of Leopold and Loeb is one of those shows that isn’t easy to forget. It will certainly get audiences talking, and thinking.

A well-known “thrill kill” murder case of the 1920s, the murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks at the hands of young, rich, and intelligent college students Nathan Leopold (Jack Zanger) and Richard Loeb (Pete Winfrey) shocked Chicago and the entire nation.  The play follows their story particularly focusing on their relationship. The director’s note calls it a “love story”, and I guess you can think of it that way, but this is one twisted sort of love story. The relationship as portrayed here appears more as a fascination, a mutual enthrallment, a mixture of admiration, self-satisfaction, and encouragement of the most dangerous impulses in service of that enthrallment. These two bask in the glow of their own perceived prowess as Nietzsche-inspired “supermen” who are aren’t bound by the rules of society. The play cuts back and forth between the trial itself and various moments in the development of Leopold and Loeb’s relationship, including the planning and carrying out of their grisly crime. Also featured in the story is the duo’s defense attorney, the world-renowned Clarence Darrow (John Flack), who looms as a non-speaking presence through most of the first act before becoming a major figure in Act Two. There’s also the determined Robert Crowe (Eric Dean White), the State’s Attorney who is prosecuting the case, who argues for the death penalty for the pair while Darrow argues against it. Also featured are Will Bonfiglio, Maggie Conroy, and John Reidy in a variety of roles, most prominently as a trio of reporters who recite headlines about the case and other events of the day, as well as interviewing the major players in the trial. The structure is mostly non-linear, but there’s a definite structure and purpose that takes shape as the play progresses.

This is a strange play to watch, because it’s about a horrific crime and two unapologetic perpetrators who alternate between glorying in their own self-importance, obsessing about their relationship, and occasionally second-guessing their own actions and even threatening to turn against one another. It’s an odd situation to be in as a member of the audience, being thoroughly disgusted with the events that take place, but oddly fascinated with these characters and their unusual relationship. It’s disturbing but also interesting, with dynamic staging and some truly impressive performances by Winfrey, Zanger, Flack, and White. Winfrey, as the outgoing, gregarious Loeb, and Zanger, as the more intense, less social Leopold, command the stage whenever they are on it, and their chemistry is strong. The spell these two hold one another under is clear and obvious in all of their scenes together, and they are compelling to watch. Flack as Darrow walks with hunch and shuffles with determination, bringing a strong presence to the part of the firebrand lawyer, his eloquent and challenging closing speech being a highlight of the play, and his sparring with the excellent White as the single-minded Crowe is  excellent, as well. Bonfiglio, Conroy, and Reidy also do well in a succession of roles, with Conroy’s turn as one of Loeb’s girlfriends and Reidy’s role as the judge in the trial among their most memorable appearances. It’s a strong cast all around, being driven by director Rick Dildine’s fast-paced direction and conveying the sharp, memorable language of Logan’s script with energy and clarity.

The action takes place on a stylized set by Peter and Margery Spack that has the audience seated on either side of the performance space and surrounded by pictures of birds on the walls. The stage is divided into three basic areas with the middle showcasing much of the action, with the courtroom on one side and an office/study area on the other side, with moveable set pieces and furniture that are arranged by the actors as needed. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler and meticulously detailed and period specific, reflecting Leopold and Loeb’s privileged backgrounds, Darrow’s careworn attire, and more. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Maureen Berry, props master Margery Spack, and sound designer Michael Perkins. The world of the play, Chicago in the 1920’s is well-realized, setting the proper background for the action.

There’s so much going on in this play, in the interplay between Leopold and Loeb, the wrangling of their lawyers, the representations of the times, and more. Playwright John Logan has made a highly personal story out of an infamous murder case, and a fascinating and occasionally frightening character study as well as a study of the era itself. It’s a challenging, intensely dramatic production and a showcase for some incredible performances. It can be intensely disturbing, but also intensely thought-provoking. It’s a strange play to categorize–a crime/thriller/courtroom/psychological/love story, and it’s sure to leave its audience thinking.

John Flack, Pete Winfrey, Jack Zanger, Eric Dean White
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Never the Sinner at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until April 2, 2017.

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