Review: Project 891’s “Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story”

 An Ode to the Wrong at Heart

Loeb and Leopold

Project 891 Theatre presents:

Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story
by John Logan
directed by Michael Rashid

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Project 891 Theatre’s first stage venture, Never the Sinner: the Leopold and Loeb Story, resonates with unresolved issues from the last century. These issues continue into the 21st century as part of our unresolved daily discourse: justice, mercy, the cause of callous criminal conduct, the value of human life, the death penalty, sexuality and its causes. When one considers the implications of this play by Academy Award screenwriter John Logan, what amazes is that both the infamous murder and its prosecution are central to the history of Chicago and the nation, yet receive little serious attention today beyond true crime enthusiasts.

Guest director Michael Rashid was completely surprised when the producers offered him the project:

“They sent the script down in front of me at IHOP. We were just heading out for coffee and fries. I had known about the script for a while and had been fascinated with the story from my teens. After seeing Swoon! I was fascinated by the villains, the dark side and, being a gay man myself, the gay relationship in the story. John Logan emphasizes, first and foremost, this is a love story between Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.”

The performances are the greatest power of the production. Matt Hays (Richard Loeb), Ron Popp (Nathan Leopold), Gary Murphy (Clarence Darrow), and Robert Kaercher (Robert Crowe) are its four pillars. Each actor has been cast with precision. Gary Murphy is pitch perfect as the weary, yet undaunted humanist Clarence Darrow. Leopold and Loeb2Matt Hays conveys Loeb’s boyish amoral enthusiasm with humorous but terrifying accuracy. Robert Kaercher’s States Attorney is the quintessential man of his times, in his demeanor, delivery, and over-reliance on expertise to prosecute criminals.

Actors playing the press provide the necessary relief from the heaviness of the play’s themes, but Logan’s first work is not the easiest with which to create an uninterrupted dramatic arc. Its structure contains a lot of stop-and-start from scene to scene and Rashid’s direction has not resolved all those problems, given the spatial limitations of Chemical Imbalance Theatre. The incorporation of a high tech large digital flat screen as backdrop to the simple 1924 set and costuming is effective for the most part, conveying period newsreel footage and images emphasizing Leopold’s fascinations with falcons and Loeb. But it can also be distracting when unnecessarily telegraphing Leopold and Loeb’s relationship.

Ron Popp’s turn as Nathan Leopold, or Babe, is the hardest to warm to. His detached, ratiocinated worldview, his absolute belief in the Nietzschean Superman, provides as much distance between the character and audience as it does between him and the rest of his character’s world. But the play is dead-on in centering his worldview, with its deeper psychological underpinnings, Leopold, Loeb and Clarence Darrow as the prism through which to view Leopold and Loeb’s murder of Bobby Frank. This comes through with painful clarity when psychologists for the state interrogate Leopold and Loeb, expounding on their same-sex affair with the same detached, dissecting, and devaluing analysis that Leopold, in his turn, applies to ornithology, languages, little Bobby Frank’s life, everything.

Everything, that is, except his romance with Loeb, which he casts in fantasy, submission, and erotic wonder. Darrow orders Nathan to put aside all facts and figures, to go the heart of his being, to know truly why he has committed this terrible crime. When Babe answers, “What if my heart is wrong?” it is as if clouds have parted and the mystery becomes crystal clear. So far as the play is concerned, Leopold needs to believe in the Nietzschean Superman, and that he and Loeb are such creatures, so that his heart can have some small hope for survival in the anatomized, meaningless, Modernist world he must live in.

Loeb, Germaine and Leopold The role of Darrow could have been performed as a knight or, heaven forbid, high priest of humanistic truth. But, thankfully, Murphy’s performance gives Darrow’s idealistic moments earthiness, vitality, and accessibility. Where is such an eloquent champion now for the better part of our nature against the death penalty? We do not live in the better future that Darrow pictured himself a part of. We have been under the leadership of people who justified themselves as being above the law and above the rest of humanity. We are still suffering the blowback.

Rating: «««

 

View Never the Sinner - the Leopold and Loeb Story

Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story

Presented by Project 891 Theatre
Where: Chemically Imbalanced Theater, 1420 W. Irving Park Rd.
When: Through Aug 2, 2009
Tickets: $10-$15  (Box Office: 1-800-838-3006)

Pictures taken by Val Bromann.

7 Responses

  1. It should be noted that the great photos in the review were taken by Val Bromann.

  2. The name of the boy killed by Leopold and Loeb is Bobby Franks.

  3. Not only was the correct name of Leopold and Loeb’s young victim Bobby Franks, but Barney Frank is currently the U.S. congressman from Massachusetts. He might be surprised to learn that he is actually a 14-year-old boy murdered by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in 1924. You probably shouldn’t have the C-SPAN on the TV while you’re writing your reviews.

  4. oops, you’re definitely right about Bobby vs. Barney. Just made the change. You know, I was wondering why so many eyes were viewing this review…now that was one big snafu!

  5. Hey Ron – I just gave Val Bromann his just dues.

  6. Here is my new funny cat picture! Like it?
    http://bigpichost.com/files/my_funny_cat_s9ykvpn5_thumb.jpg

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