Next year will mark the 90th anniversary of the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case. Having inspired the 1956 novel “Compulsion,” followed by the 1959 movie version, their shocking story is now being re-told in “Never the Sinner” at the First Stage Theatre in Tysons. Why does it continue to fascinate us after all those years?
“On the surface, they seemed like everyone’s sons,” artistic director Mark Krikstan explained. “They were handsome, charming, educated, loved and supported…why did it all go so wrong? By any other scenario, they should have become productive and caring members of the community, instead of cold, brutal killers. What choice in life led them to this end?” Making their choice even more horrific, their victim was a 14-year-old neighbor named Bobby Franks.
The 1924 scene is set before the play even begins, with an old-fashioned radio topped by a doily, playing period songs. It evokes the era of anything goes, aided by the props manager Cindy Landrum Jacobs.
The atmosphere grows darker as the spectators realize with a shock that Loeb, played by Alex Mandell, is seated among them, in the front row. They can’t help feeling relieved when he leaves his seat empty, by mounting the stage to dance with Nathan Leopold (Stephen Russell Murray) as choreographed by Matthew Gardiner.
“Why did they do it?” remains the question that enthralls us to this day. Near the end of the show, Leopold himself asks, “Why did we kill Bobby Franks?” Loeb can only reply, “I don’t know.”
But playwright John Logan comes up with a convincing theory: Loeb responded to Leopold’s sexual desires in return for Leopold’s acting out Loeb’s fatal fantasy. Both rationalized this madness away by claiming to be Nietzsche’s supermen, above good and evil, and proving it by committing the perfect crime.
Costumer Laree Lentz enhances Loeb’s sexy but sinister good looks with a wide, gangster-style necktie that would have seemed rakish at the time. It helps him act out a gangster’s role in one of his violent fantasies. Lentz also emphasizes Leopold’s relatively timid, conservative nature by giving him a bow tie.
Leopold’s motivation is all too evident, when he dances with his partner and then kisses him passionately. Loeb reveals his own desires in his almost childish excitement, as he kills the child he has lured into his car, while his partner weeps in the driver’s seat.
The young victim himself is never seen, which emphasizes the horror of the act. Brian S. Allard, the lighting director, evokes it even further, by frequently plunging the culprits literally into the shadows.
Portrayed by Adam Downs, Amber Jackson and Sun King Davis, the reporters keep chattering frantically about the crime, to reflect the public’s well-justified outrage…and the audience’s as well.
When the two boys are arrested for murder, the outrage boils over to the point where the death penalty seems a certainty. But they are saved by Clarence Darrow, in an impassioned anti-execution speech that could easily be repeated in today’s continuing capital punishment debate.
In playing this pivotal role, Michael Kramer is up against some pretty strict competition…namely, Orson Welles. He re-created Darrow’s stunning summation in the “Compulsion” movie, leading to his best-actor Academy Award.
But Kramer reaches at least a tie with Welles, in Darrow’s famed speech that started with the depiction of the condemned prisoner, “checking off the days and hours and minutes…” Eric Lucas is equally effective in as the prosecutor, Robert Crowe, with his own relatively feeble pro-death penalty arguments. He was clearly no match for Darrow in the courtroom…but then, who ever was?
One of Darrow’s other memorable phrases provides the play’s title: “I may well hate the sin, but never the sinner.”
At age 28, Amy Kellet was one of the younger audience members, who had come because she had friends in the cast. As for Leopold and Loeb themselves, she said, “I had heard their names, but I didn’t know anything about them.” She certainly does now…along with all the other spectators of this enthralling and imaginative production.
It is made more inviting with its stadium seating and padded seats, plus appetizers, desserts and drinks served in the lobby before and after the show.