John P. Flannery has seen his share of courtroom drama during 30 years in the legal profession, including stints as a federal prosecutor and a congressional special counsel. Tomorrow night, the Leesburg lawyer will take on the persona of a magistrate when he portrays Judge Hathorne in the Sterling Playmakers' staging of "The Crucible."
Portraying the stern official who presides over the Salem witch trials has enabled Flannery, 56, to combine two passions -- law and theater.
While earning undergraduate degrees in physics and industrial engineering, Flannery participated in a summer theater program at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. As a law student at Columbia University, he participated in moot court competitions and pursued on- and off-campus politics, activities that required him to hone extemporaneous skills rather than the memorization of lines.
After graduating from law school in 1972, Flannery delivered speeches and lectures and made frequent presentations in court and on Capitol Hill. In 1984, he was the Democratic candidate for the 10th Congressional District in Virginia, and during the O.J. Simpson trial he provided legal analysis on network TV and radio.
Not until 2001 did he rediscover acting, playing a Southern politician in the independent film "The Frogs."
Flannery, whose supporting role in "The Crucible" marks his debut with the Playmakers, delights in the opportunity to portray a judge, even one he characterizes as "fatally flawed."
"Hathorne has a one-dimensional view," Flannery said. "He can see no other side of the issue but that the 'innocent' children claim to see and know witchery. He believes witchery to exist. He resists therefore with every judicial and political power at his disposal any testimony or evidence that might undermine that proposition."
In his own career, Flannery said he has observed just one similarity between Hathorne and real-life, contemporary justices. "The best judges tend to get active," he said. "In this play, you have Judge Hathorne asking questions instead of allowing the prosecutor to."
Flannery describes Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller's 1953 script as an allegory about the presumption of guilt, one as pertinent now as it was in the McCarthy era.
"This is a great play to read, and it offers some fascinating debating points," he said. "And it's certainly relevant in today's political atmosphere. Are we compromising an individual's rights for an unjustifiable reason? How does the process protect an individual when the system is based on fear? How do we order our liberties and order our relationships?"
Flannery's involvement with the Sterling Playmakers is his first community theater experience. After viewing the troupe's production of "Scrooge" last year, he decided to audition for "The Crucible" in January. He and the cast have engaged in spirited plot analyses as a result of director Terry DiMurro's requirement that all 22 actors remain in character throughout rehearsal sessions.
"The interaction with the other actors is critical, especially if you're going to recreate human life in the form of a play," Flannery said. "Life itself is a tremendous drama, and this is heavy stuff. The group of regulars [within the Playmakers] has the capacity to carry it off."
Flannery serves as firm counsel at Campbell Miller Zimmerman, based in Leesburg. His foray into community theater offers the opportunity to mix art and life.
"Living a life well is an artistic act," he said. "It's been great fun creating this construct so that people can participate in something that titillates their conscience. The audience will leave the theater, having been entertained but also having learned something. We're allowing them to visit something that is real and allows them to consider it without being hurt."
"The Crucible" opens at 8 p.m. tomorrow at Sterling Middle School, 201 W. Holly Ave. Additional shows are scheduled through April 6. Tickets are $10. For dates and times, call 703-437-6117 or visit www.sterlingplaymakers.com.