‘Never the Sinner: The Leopold & Loeb Story’ at 1st Stage by Yvonne French

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In 1st Stage’s gripping production of Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story, seven actors explore homosexual power struggles, murderous thrill-seeking, and reportorial sensationalism in the powerful historical play by John Logan.

Alex Mandell (Richard Loeb) and Stephen Russell Murray (Nathan Leopold), right. Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Alex Mandell (Richard Loeb) and Stephen Russell Murray (Nathan Leopold), right. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Director Jeremy Skidmore makes great use of the script in the epic courtroom drama that takes place during the summer of 1924 in Chicago, where teenagers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb are on trial for kidnapping and murdering 14-year-old Bobby Franks. At the time, it was billed “the trial of the century.”

Michael Kramer is utterly convincing as Defense Attorney Clarence Darrow in his flinty questioning of the boys at the jail, his wizened cross-examinations of the witnesses in court, and his shaking jowls and quivering hands when he makes final arguments against the death penalty. The title of the play is from the transcript of Darrow’s own words, “I may very well hate the sin in all the world, but never the sinner.”

Stephen Russell Murray portrays Leopold as a vulnerable, detached intellectual who is attracted to Loeb but resigned that he cannot have him. Like the rook that fascinates him ornighologically, he cunningly manipulates Loeb into trading sex—or at least prolonged kisses—in return for being a reluctant partner in the perfect crime: one that is as exciting to plan as it is to execute.

Alex Mandell plays the reckless Loeb with a hawk-like intensity and a conscience so absent that it parades as innocence. He uses slow-motion at the beginning of the crime and is good at showing the almost sexual excitement of the kill.

Eric Lucas, playing State’s Attorney Robert Crowe, puts across a seething contempt for the boys that is fueled by jealousy of their privileged lifestyle. He successfully reveals it further in a personal argument with Darrow.

The reporters serve as a Greek chorus commenting upon the scene through stand-up microphones. Sun King Davis stops just short of being smarmy as Reporter # 1. He also plays a perjuring police witness for the prosecution and a psychologist for the defense, using different voices and mannerisms for each. Amber Jackson is flashy and confident while she sensationalizes the story as Reporter # 2. She also plays Loeb’s date on the night of the crime, revealing her thought process coyly on the witness stand. Adam Downs slips into the time period effortlessly and plays a nuanced Reporter # 3 who feigns shock in a half-droll manner as he delivers the story.

From left to right, Alex Mandell (Richard Loeb), Stephen Russell Murray (Nathan Leopold), Sun King Davis (Reporter #1), Michael Kramer (defense attorney Clarence Darrow), and Adam Downs (Reporter #3). Photo by Teresa Castracane.
From left to right, Alex Mandell (Richard Loeb), Stephen Russell Murray (Nathan Leopold), Sun King Davis (Reporter #1), Michael Kramer (defense attorney Clarence Darrow), and Adam Downs (Reporter #3). Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Skidmore and choreographer Matthew Gardiner position Leopold and Loeb cleverly to explicate their dialog when they are being tried. Another well-directed scene was the argument between Darrow and Crowe.

The staging is reminiscent of a live Garrison Keillor radio show. During the action, the supporting actors remain on stage making sound effects with an old typewriter, a gavel, a bird whistle, a wind machine and even pieces of paper and a file folder. Eric Shimelonis created the  sound design and props were by Cindy Landrum Jacobs, and included a  floor radio, a gramophone, standing microphones, and an on-air sign.  Robbie Hayes’ effective set  was a simple square room made from  scrims decorated with a dark chair rail. The design team also included Laree Lentz (costumes), and Brian S. Allard (lighting).

1st Stage’s Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story has a fine cast. I urge you to sit in on this well-paced, fascinating trial. Go!

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, with intermission.

Never the Sinner plays through April 14, 2013, at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in McLean, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online