KPBS AIRDATE: October 7, 1996
Remember the Twinkie Defense? It got to be kind of a joke. But it was no laughing matter in San Francisco when it helped get Dan White off on a manslaughter charge rather than first-degree murder. Junk food — and rampant homophobia.
It was 1978, a politically-charged, culturally divisive time in the City by the Bay. Dan White, a conservative member of the Board of Supervisors, shot and killed liberal Mayor George Moscone and fellow Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States.
Working from actual trial transcripts, playwright Emily Mann has created a docu-drama, “Execution of Justice,” which is currently getting a very potent staging at Diversionary Theatre. Terry Ross, who acted in the original 1985 production at Berkeley Rep, directs a highly competent cast of 16, playing 42 characters. It’s an agitating, stimulating and somewhat flawed play, ultimately both troubling and stirring. This isn’t about decades-old news. This is about today, tomorrow, Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, prejudice and the erosion of faith in the justice system. You can’t look away and you can’t just walk away.
The only trouble is, Mann doesn’t trust the self-incriminating trial transcripts enough, or maybe she didn’t think they would provide all perspectives. Her efforts to make the play more theatrical, employing a Greek chorus of commentators — gay men on the street, angry women, politicians looking back, the jailer who was never called into court — often serve more as interruption than enhancement. But making the audience the jury is highly effective, and the main characters in court are riveting: James Brown and Dale Morris as the attorneys and Donn White as Dan White, especially in his tape recorded confession, which shows the human side of this self-righteous right-winger who claimed, till the end, “I was just trying to do a good job for the city.” Gayle Feldman, Bryan Bevell and Joe Nesnow are compelling in their multiple roles. This is a stellar celebration of Diversionary’s tenth anniversary; they’ve come a long way, Baby.
Up in La Jolla, Lisa Kron also travels a long way — in one monologue, she takes us (along with her father) to a family outing in Sandusky, Ohio and to Auschwitz, the Polish concentration camp. The centerpiece of “2.5 Minute Ride” isn’t really Kron herself; it’s her father, a “72 year-old blind, diabetic Holocaust survivor with a heart condition.” Between the two of them, he is by far the more interesting character. In fact, with all her attempts at humor and poignancy, Kron doesn’t really grab us until she impersonates her father, in a searing moment that recalls his interrogation of a Gestapo officer. In the next incarnation of this world premiere, that scene should come much sooner. Less on the daughter’s dreams; more on the father’s reality. Kron also needs to work on her delivery. She tends too much toward dispassion; her voice has one note and her face sports a repetitive, punctuating grimace.
With further trimming and shaping and vocal variety, this piece could be truly touching; it’s not yet a moving ride.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.