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1st Stage Never the Sinner

By • Apr 4th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Never the Sinner
1st Stage: (Info) (Web)
1st Stage, McLean, VA
Through April 14th
2:30 with intermission
$25/$15 Students (Plus Fees)
Reviewed March 30th, 2013

As long as there have been societal norms, our literature has been fascinated with those who break them. We seem to be obsessed with understanding the demons that drive our social deviants so that we may delude ourselves into thinking that we can predict and somehow control their behavior. It seems to me however that more often than not, there is rarely (if ever) a cut-and-dry explanation for crime. Some do it for attention, some to be remembered, some for material gain, some for martyrdom. The most titillating stories though are always those of criminals who, in the words of Alfred Pennyworth in The Dark Knight, “just want to watch the world burn.”

Interestingly enough, many of the infamous real crimes that have been fictionalized over the years have involved two men; the investigation of the crime always focused on their relationships, personalities, and influence over one another. The paradigm is almost always the same: one man shy and sweet but cold, the other brash and devilishly charismatic. Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris — the list goes on. I was struck by these and other parallels as I watched 1st Stage’s production of John Logan’s Never the Sinner — the story of the 1924 murder of Bobby Franks committed by two self-proclaimed “supermen,” Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.

As the audience strolled into the tiny theatre in Tysons Corner, the actors (in designer Laree Lentz’ fantastic costumes) were milling about the space setting props and casually chatting. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure that this decision worked until the show actually started — the actors were setting the stage for a 1920’s radio play that served as a framing device for the entire play. It was a bold choice, but one that paid off immensely. Sound designer Eric Shimelonis’s attention to detail was uncanny as he combined a plethora of antique noisemakers with modern microphones to create the perfect aural environment for this disturbing production. The culmination of his efforts was in a scene late in the play in which I remember the “music” being particularly eerie — my jaw dropped when I realized that the “music” was simply the actors subtly using the various noisemakers onstage. It’s rare that a sound design will make such an impression on me, but Mr. Shimelonis ingeniously managed to make sound an integral part of this show.

Director Jeremy Skidmore took the radio play concept and ran with it, using designer Robbie Hayes’ brilliantly nondescript studio set as the perfect background for the play’s many locales. I particularly enjoyed Mr. Skidmore’s unconventional staging of the courtroom scenes — no two were set the exact same way, yet the angle of focus and director’s intention were always clear. Mr. Skidmore’s use of the space as well as the radio play concept created an oddly whimsical atmosphere that amplified the impact of the play’s grisly subject matter a hundredfold.

The small cast of seven worked extremely well together, each member deserving of high praise. I have to comment, though, on the performances of Stephen Russell Murray as Leopold and Alex Mandell as Loeb. Both of these young actors imbued their characters with endless layers of complexity and passion. Mr. Murray did not cut an imposing figure, but his cold, calculating stare was enough to send shivers down my spine. His performance was deeply unsettling from the start, made all the more potent by his almost childlike innocence and aloof intellectualism — truly a masterful portrayal. As Loeb, Mr. Mandell expertly embodied the spirit of the seductive deviant mastermind. His charisma knew no limits, and his easy smile was the kind that makes one shudder to think of the things of which he could convince a person. Also impressive was his innate ability to make the script’s authentic ’20’s slang seem just as natural as the vernacular of today. To watch these two gifted actors debate Nietzschean philosophy, intellectual superiority, moral ambiguity, and the unspoken relationship between sexuality and power was absolutely electrifying and a privilege to watch.

With a smattering of adult language and discussion of murder, this is not a show for little ones. Mr. Skidmore and his cast and crew have created a thrilling, insightful piece of theatre that will make you question your judgment and appeal to the potential deviant within us all.

Director’s Note

The play recreates the 1924 “trial of the century.” Two Chicago teenagers, Leopold and Loeb, from millionaire families, kidnap and brutally murder a 14-year-old for the thrill of creating the perfect crime. Their complex and fascinating relationship of fevered intellect, romantic passion, and distorted philosophy is unpacked by defense attorney Clarence Darrow who reshapes the trial into a vivid and powerful explorations of violence, vengeance and justice.

Photo Gallery

Stephen Russell Murray as Nathan Leopold, Michael Kramer as defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Eric Lucas as prosecutor Robert Crowe Alex Mandell as Richard Loeb and Stephen Russell Murray as Nathan Leopold
Stephen Russell Murray as Nathan Leopold, Michael Kramer as defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Eric Lucas as prosecutor Robert Crowe
Alex Mandell as Richard Loeb and Stephen Russell Murray as Nathan Leopold
Adam Downs as Reporter #3 Alex Mandell as Richard Loeb, Stephen Russell Murray as Nathan Leopold, Sun King Davis as Reporter #1, Michael Kramer as defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Adam Downs as Reporter #3
Adam Downs as Reporter #3
Alex Mandell as Richard Loeb, Stephen Russell Murray as Nathan Leopold, Sun King Davis as Reporter #1, Michael Kramer as defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Adam Downs as Reporter #3
Eric Lucas as prosecutor Robert Crowe and Michael Kramer as defense attorney Clarence Darrow Amber Jackson as Germaine Rheinhardt
Eric Lucas as prosecutor Robert Crowe and Michael Kramer as defense attorney Clarence Darrow
Amber Jackson as Germaine Rheinhardt
Stephen Russell Murray at Nathan Leopold, Michael Kramer as Clarence Darrow, and Alex Mandell as Richard Loeb Stephen Russell Murray and Alex Mandell as Leopold and Loeb
Stephen Russell Murray at Nathan Leopold, Michael Kramer as Clarence Darrow, and Alex Mandell as Richard Loeb
Stephen Russell Murray and Alex Mandell as Leopold and Loeb

Photos by Teresa Castracane

Cast

  • Leopold: Stephen Russell Murray
  • Loeb: Alex Mandell
  • Reporter #1: Sun King Davis
  • Reporter #2: Amber Jackson
  • Reporter #3: Adam Downs
  • Robert Crowe: Eric Lucas
  • Clarence Darrow: Michael Kramer

Crew

  • Playwright: John Logan
  • Director: Jeremy Skidmore
  • Lighting Design: Brian S. Allard
  • Choreography: Matthew Gardiner
  • Set Design: Robbie Hayes
  • Stage Manager: Theresa Hindersinn
  • Costume Design: Laree Lentz
  • Sound Design: Eric Shimelonis
  • Set Construction: Howard Forman, Barry Holt, Mark Krikstan, Don Moore, Sebastian Wilbern
  • Electricians: Andrew Jorgensen, Logan Duvall

Disclaimer: 1st Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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, a native of Frederick, MD, has been heavily involved in every single facet of theatre for the majority of his life. He has been seen on stages in Frederick, Charles Town, WV, Kensington, MD, Greenbelt, MD, Gettysburg, PA, and many others. A two-time WATCH Award nominee, Eric has over 80 shows to his credit and is a double-graduate of Frederick County’s Arts and Communications Academy in music and theatre. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication from the University of Maryland and currently lives in Frederick.

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