Kensington Arts Theatre ParadeBy Bob Ashby • Oct 30th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Kensington Arts Theatre: (Info) (Web)
Kensington Town Center, Kensington, Md
Through November 15th
2:40 with intermission
$23/$20 Seniors/$17 Students and Children/$15 Kensington Residents
Reviewed October 26th, 2013
“[L]ynch law [is] as little valid when practised by a regularly drawn jury as when administered by one elected by a mob intent on death,” said Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., dissenting in Frank v. Mangum, 237 U.S. 309, 350 (1915). Both varieties of lynching are the somewhat unlikely subject of the musical drama Parade, now playing at Kensington Arts Theatre (KAT). The case that occasioned Holmes’ comment concerned Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent in Atlanta, convicted by a publicity-fueled trial and subsequently hanged by an actual lynch mob. His 1915 lynching was one event of several that heralded a hardening of social and racial attitudes in the U.S., others being the release of D.W. Griffith’s racist epic, “Birth of a Nation,” and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia and elsewhere.
Atlanta had a well-established, assimilated Jewish community, about which the author of the play’s book, Alfred Uhry, has written successfully before (in “Driving Miss Daisy”). Frank’s wife Lucille (Emily Zicker) was part of that community; Frank emphatically was not. As portrayed in Parade, Leo (Bobby Libby) was the quintessential outsider. A Jew from Brooklyn who found life in Georgia thoroughly uncomfortable, a supervisor running a factory paying low wages to local teenagers, an uptight workaholic with limited social skills, he was an inviting target for the economic and ethnic resentments of the time.
Libby’s Frank is, for much of the play, a deer in the headlights: he cannot believe that his normal routine is being disrupted by ridiculous charges that he murdered his young employee, Mary Phagan (Catherine Callahan, looking fetching but not 13); he cannot believe that he will have to stand trial; he cannot believe that the court will accept perjured testimony concocted by the prosecution; he cannot believe that justice will not ultimately prevail; and he cannot believe that people actually want to kill him. He is, after all, completely innocent. During much of his trial, Leo sits at the counsel table, head leaning back toward the wall, scarcely reacting to the circus around him. Libby’s most active moment during the trial is “Come Up to My Office,” in which not the real defendant but the lying witnesses’ caricature of him sings and dances as an embodiment of what today would be called sexual harassment. At the trial’s conclusion, Leo is still hesitantly trying to find his own voice (“It’s Hard to Speak My Heart”).
It is only after the trial, as Leo is sitting in jail hoping for success in his appeals, that his emotional journey really begins. When we first see his relationship with Lucille, Leo is completely focused on his job, treating his wife condescendingly as the “little woman,” much to Lucille’s frustration (“Leo at Work/What Am I Waiting For?”). Lucille, forced by circumstances out of her genteel domestic role, changes first, becoming a staunch advocate for her husband (“You Don’t Know This Man,” a stern rebuke to an intrusive reporter, Britt Craig (Patrick McMahan)). She becomes equally assertive to her husband (“Do It Alone”). She takes her personal advocacy to Governor John Slaton (also McMahan), crashing a tea dance to make her case. Slaton undertakes a personal investigation of the case (the historical Slaton, a partner of Frank’s defense attorney, reviewed 10,000 pages of documents concerning the case), concluding that the trial was severely flawed. He commutes Leo’s sentence to life imprisonment, one day before Frank is scheduled to hang, leading to a giddy celebration by Leo and Lucille (“This is Not Over Yet”). By this time, Leo and Lucille have come to deeply appreciate and love one another, and their final number (“All the Wasted Time”) is the evening’s most sweetly touching moment. Libby and Zicker are fully up to the vocal and acting demands of their roles, and their evolving relationship is the emotional center of the play.
Among the supporting cast, Michael Nansel stands out as smooth, ambitious prosecutor Hugh Dorsey. With a commanding presence and powerful baritone voice, Nansel portrays a vigorous man who is always in charge of a situation and ready to take whatever steps are necessary to achieve his objective. As Mary Phagan’s mother, Marni Ratner Whelan has a stunning moment of grief mixed with bigotry in “My Child Will Forgive Me.” As Tom Watson, conceived as a strange, one-dimensional Bible-wielding demagogue, Brad Carnes-Stine gives expression to and exploits the anger of white Georgians and directs that anger squarely at Frank.
The Frank case was primarily a struggle among whites, a kind of American analog of the Dreyfuss affair, which had concluded in France only a few years before. The anti-Semitic fervor that underlay Frank’s prosecution took place in the context of the even more widespread repression of African-Americans in the Jim Crow South. Having the task of representing the African-American element in the story are Ian Coleman and Eben Logan. Coleman is triple cast as Newt Lee, the watchman who discovers Mary Phagan’s body; Jim Conley, another worker who is coerced into lying to incriminate Frank; and Riley, a generic servant. Coleman’s Lee and Conley characters are not as clearly differentiated as one might wish, though their musical numbers (“I Am Trying to Remember” and “That’s What He Said,” respectively) are well delivered. Frank’s supporters have suggested it was really Conley who killed Phagan, a defense that, ironically, resonates in the stereotype of black criminals preying on innocent white girls.
In his Riley incarnation, Coleman joins Logan (as the equally generic servant, Angela) in “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin,” in which they point out that the national furor over the Frank case would not attend racially based injustices. Perhaps because of the modest size of the ensemble, Coleman and Logan (who also plays Minnie, the Franks’ maid) are sometimes improbably placed among the crowd celebrating Confederate holidays and calling for Frank’s conviction.
The cast and the orchestra, led by music director David Rhode, do justice to the complex Tony Award-winning score by Jason Roberts Brown (who also wrote The Last Five Years). The score displays Sondheim’s influence on Brown at a number of points. Like Sondheim or Rodgers and Hammerstein, Brown writes theater songs that arise from character, and the musical styles attached to various roles in the show go far to illuminate the nature of each character.
The technical side of the production is handled very capably. Matt Karner’s striking set design features a large American flag backdrop, flanked by two curved platforms connected by an upstage walkway. A 48-star flag hangs on the stage right platform; the Stars and Bars on the other. A trapdoor is used to good effect in the funeral scene for Mary Phagan. Director Craig Pettinati creates effective, balanced stage pictures and keeps the scenes moving effectively. This is not one of those productions with long moments of dead air between scenes. The cinematic flow of the action is abetted in no small degree by Ben Levine’s lighting design, featuring a large number of specials and specifically focused area lights that accompany characters from one portion of the playing area to another.
There are many photographs available of the clothing worn by people connected with the trial and in early 20th century Atlanta generally, and the show’s costumes, designed by Eleanor Dicks and Jamie Breckenridge, accurately reflect period detail. The fishing garb worn by Nansel and Eric Jones (playing Judge Roan) in “The Glory” could have benefitted from being grubbier. Some of the props – Leo’s glasses, for example — were perfect, though there were a couple nits to pick, like the distinctly plastic sound of Lucille’s “fine china” and what appears to be a trout basket she uses for a purse in one scene.
Jacob Kresloff provides a well written, interesting dramaturg’s note in the program on the historical and economic background of the Frank case. More community theater productions should include information of this sort, which is a valuable addition to audience’s members’ experience of a show. A historically based show like Parade can be something of a dramaturg’s playground, with far more complexities and ironies to discuss than program space allows. Tom Watson, for example, had a long history of progressive politics (he was the primary sponsor of Rural Free Delivery mail service, among other things), once running as William Jennings Bryan’s Populist Party ticket for Vice-President. A sensationalist newspaper publisher in 1915, Watson publicly supported lynching.
Hugh Dorsey, propelled into two terms as Governor of Georgia on the strength of his renown as the Frank case prosecutor, governed on what were, for early 20th century Georgia, liberal principles. Watson defeated him for a Senate seat in 1920 by running to his right on a nativist platform. Like Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld, who 20 years previously had pardoned three men convicted in the Haymarket affair, Gov. Slaton saw his political career end as the result of commuting Frank’s sentence. Contrary to the common picture of lynching as something committed by ignorant rednecks (e.g., the mob that Atticus Finch fends off in To Kill a Mockingbird), Frank’s lynching was elaborately planned and carried out by a group of leading citizens from Marietta, Georgia.
Lynching has hopefully passed forever from the American scene, but politicians and media figures who inflame resentments and target those perceived as outsiders are always with us. In addition to sounding a cautionary note about contemporary demagoguery, the value of Parade in KAT’s production is that it takes what could simply be a history lesson and incarnates it in vivid, believable characters whose motivations and become clear to and can move an audience.
Photos by Ernie Achenbach
- Leo Frank: Bobby Libby
- Lucille Frank: Emily Zickler
- Jim Conley/Newt Lee/Riley: Ian Coleman
- Mary Phagan: Catherine Callahan
- Young Soldier/Frankie Epps: Harrison Smith
- Old Soldier/Hugh Dorsey: Michael Nansel
- Gov. John Slaton/Britt Craig/Mr. Peavy: Patrick McMahan
- Detective Starnes/Tom Watson: Brad Carnes-Stine
- Guard/Judge Roan: Eric Jones
- Mrs. Phagan/Sally Slaton: Marni Ratner Whelan
- Officer Ivey/Luther Rosser/Guard: Stephen Yednock
- Iola Stover: Sarah Anne Sillers
- Monteen: Elizabeth Gillespie
- Essie: Joanna Frezzo
- Snare Drummer: Francisco Carnes-Stine
- Music Direction: Craig Pettinati
- Keyboards: David Rohde, Francine Krasowska
- Violin: Sarah Morrison
- Viola: Caroline Brethauer
- Cello: Karin Loya or Michael Stein
- Clarinets: Mitch Bassman or Lindsay Williams
- French Horn: Lora Katz
- Bass: Cyndy Elliott
- Percussion: Kevin Uleck
- Producer: Malca Giblin
- Director: Craig Pettinati
- Music Director: David Rohde
- Assistant Directors: Rachel Cervarich, Jacob Kresloff
- Choreographers: Rachel Cervarich, Emily Zickler, Elizabeth Gillespie, Craig Pettinati
- Scenic Design/Painting/ Master Carpenter: Matt Karner
- Assistant Master Carpenter: Joel Richon
- Properties: Brian Campbell
- Light Design: Ben Lavine
- Light Board Operation: Dylan Stieber, Maria O’Connor
- Sound Design/Board Operation: Kevin Garrett
- Costume Design: Eleanor Dicks, Jamie Breckenridge
- Hair/Makeup Design: Cast, Marni Ratner Whelan
- Dramaturg: Jacob Kresloff
- Dialect Coaches: Eric Jones, Emily Zickler
- Construction/Painting Crew: Matt Karner, Joel Richon, Mike Ricci, Ed Eggleston, Brian Campbell, Michael Nansel, Doe B. Kim, Malca Giblin
- Stage Crew: Brian Campbell, Malca Giblin, Avia Fields, KJ McGowan, Francisco Carnes-Stine
- Program Cover/Logo Design: Ernie Achenbach
- Program Design/House Manager: Doe B. Kim
Disclaimer: Kensington Arts Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9858.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.