KPBS AIRDATE: February 15, 2002
It was the first “trial of the century,” but by no means the last. In 1924, Nathan Leopold, age 19 and Richard Loeb, 18, confessed to the murder of a 14 year-old boy.
It was a bizarre and terrifying set of circumstances. The killers were excellent students, wealthy and privileged. Loeb was obsessed with crime; Leopold was obsessed with Loeb. Both were fueled by Nietzsche’s theory of the ‘Uber Mensch,” the Super Man who was above pedestrian moral and legal obligations. They barely knew the young kid they brutally killed. It was a lark; they wanted to commit the perfect crime, just to prove they could. Clarence Darrow came out of retirement to defend them. His 12-hour summation remains one of the country’s most eloquent attacks on the death penalty.
With all that we’ve been through in the past century and the past year, the story still has the power to shock. And John Logan’s play distills it down to its essence, to a series of seminal snapshots, jumping back and forth in time and place, from the boys’ meeting to the murder, from the press perspective to the courtroom duel between two well-intentioned attorneys. The title comes from Darrow: “I may well hate the sin,” he said. “But never the sinner.”
The chilling tale is given its due, and then some, at Diversionary Theatre. Yet another in its extraordinary string of successes, the production of “Never the Sinner” is flawless. Sean Murray’s direction is taut, spare and sharply focused. David Weiner’s set is aptly simple and stark. Mike Durst’s lighting and George Ye’s sound capture the mood of the telling and the time.
The cast is uniformly outstanding. Jon Levenson and David Stanbra are amiably terrifying as Leopold and Loeb — the brooding, bird-watching intellectual and the dashing, amoral prankster. Equally well matched are Antonio T.J. Johnson as the shambling but powerfully persuasive Darrow and Jonathan Dunn-Rankin, he of the mellifluous voice, as the expert but overshadowed prosecutor Robert Crowe. Manuel Fernandes and Melissa Supera do excellent work as a variety of Chicago characters — from reporter to psychiatrist to Loeb groupie.
To underscore the fact that this horrifying case isn’t old news, the Diversionary Theatre lobby is plastered with photos of modern-day Leopolds and Loebs — from the Menendez brothers to the young boys from Santee and Littleton who’ve shot up their schools and terrorized their peers. This adds a whole other dimension to the evening, which is already unnerving. Enter the theater forewarned — but ignore this story and this play at your own peril. The real crime of the century would be to miss this impeccable production.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc