In 1st Stage’s gripping and handsomely wrought production of “Never the Sinner,” Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb come to trial in Chicago for their vile 1924 thrill-killing of 14-year-old Bobby Franks, Loeb’s cousin. Their defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, acknowledges their guilt and turns the proceedings into a sentencing hearing, his goal to save Loeb and Leopold, neither yet 21, from the gallows.
The push-pull of the narrative enthralls the audience, carrying it from fascination to horror and back again, thanks to Jeremy Skidmore’s incisive direction. And 1st Stage, a young company, proves up to the task in every way.
John Logan’s elegant and deeply researched 1985 play is a complex thing of beauty. He’s had much success since “Sinner.” He wrote the hit play “Red,” as well as screenplays for films including “Hugo,” “Rango,” “Gladiator” and “The Aviator.” His “Sinner” script never lapses into pedantry, nor does it shrink from the lurid side of the story. Scenes flashing back to the early days of Loeb and Leopold’s passionate friendship and their planning of the crime sharply contrast with the courtroom docudrama.
The spacious, uncluttered set, designed with fine wood accents by Robbie Hayes, becomes a courtroom, a radio studio, a Chicago street and more, with just a few tables, chairs and benches, moodily lit by Brian S. Allard. A Greek chorus of reporters (Sun King Davis, Amber Jackson and Adam Downs) provides updates and reveals facts of the case as police piece it together — from the discovery of Franks’s beaten corpse to the lost glasses that finally lead them to Leopold and Loeb. At various times, cast members operate old-fashioned sound-effects equipment on tables on either side of the stage, conjuring chirping birds or falling raindrops. This play about a horror is woven with details that can only be described as fun.
Stephen Russell Murray’s Leopold has a wonderfully haunted look and a sweaty skittishness. Alex Mandell does a fine job embodying Loeb as a hard case — bullying, manipulative and amoral. Flashbacks trace their relationship from a first meeting to a conversation as they await sentencing and much in between. Most unsettling is the way the young killers, especially Loeb, listen to testimony and snicker at details of the murder in court.
State’s attorney Robert Crowe (Eric Lucas) goes toe to toe with Darrow (Michael Kramer), Crowe demanding death to prove that society must exact an eye for an eye when faced with such a heinous crime, Darrow pleading for mercy as “the highest attribute of man.” The two defendants did not hang.
Even before the show starts, the cast inhabits the stage with vivid authority, all of them handsomely turned out in period dress by Laree Lentz. Jackson may seem too callow as a hard-boiled reporter, but she rebounds in triumph as the gum-chewing girl who once dated Loeb. And yes, Lucas as the DA could use sharper diction and more of a “Chi-caw-go” accent, but he brings a looming, moralistic presence to the stage as the embodiment of the law.
Kramer’s Darrow is not the witty fellow one remembers from “Inherit the Wind.” Here, he cuts a paternal figure, astonished at the crime, nearly weeping in his summation to the judge, never wavering from his assertion that Loeb and Leopold are merely “boys” who went astray, and there but for the grace of God go any of our offspring.
In the second act, a psychiatrist (well played by Davis) testifies that the young killers, both scions of wealthy Chicago families of German-Jewish ancestry, were intellectually brilliant yet emotionally arrested at a preteen level, selfish and narcissistic. They were also lovers, he explains; Leopold, the less criminally inclined of the two, so adored Loeb that he would take part in crimes in return for sexual contact.
“Never the Sinner” had a memorable staging here in 1997, a co-production of Rep Stage in Columbia and Signature Theatre in Arlington, directed by Ethan McSweeny. The production moved to the American Jewish Theater in New York for a run.
Now 1st Stage adds a deeply entertaining and richly emotional version to the local lexicon.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
by John Logan. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Sound design, Eric Shimelonis; choreography, Matthew Gardiner. About 2 hours, 15 minutes, including one intermission. Through April 14 at 1st Stage in Tysons, 1524 Spring Hill Road, McLean. Call 703-854-1856 or visit www.1ststagetysons.org.