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Shakespeare had it easy, and Aeschylus was luckier still when it came to explaining inexplicable human behavior. To account for the cruelty of fiends, the Bard could reference curses, humours, magic; the Greeks could blame the gods—and no one would say them nay. As late as the 19th century, one’s “nature” was considered so essentially irreducible that villains needed no excuse other than simple fate to be villainous.
Contemporary playwrights, by contrast, have their hands tied by psychiatry. Nurture is king now, nature all but banished from the theatrical equation, and while this forces a certain complexity onto modern stage monsters, it also makes them little more than the sum of their upbringing. Give the crowd out front a murderer to ponder, and they’ll look for a backstory.
Which is why you’ll currently find three women on one downtown stage, three men on another, engaged in separate struggles to explain the murder of children by youngsters barely past adolescence themselves. In Agnes of God, a court-appointed psychiatrist battles a protective Mother Superior while investigating how a young nun came to be found in a convent cell with the body of her newborn, its umbilical cord wrapped tightly around its neck. In Never the Sinner, ’20s thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb are put on trial for their unblinking murder of a younger schoolmate.
It’s easy to imagine either piece as a conventional police procedural, with Law & Order–style interrogations, prosecutorial hand-wringing, and courtroom confessions. The Leopold and Loeb case has already prompted such movies as Swoon, Rope, and Compulsion, each with its own voyeuristic take on a crime that resulted in headlines about “The Trial of the Century.” In the theater, though, the hows and whys of a murder case generally offer only a starting point to playwrights who aren’t in an Agatha Christie frame of mind.
John Pielmeier, for instance, means in Agnes of God to use the death of an innocent to discuss the nature of innocence, while simultaneously having a go at age-old questions about the intersection of faith and science. Plainspoken Mother Superior (Linda High), who has looked after 20-year-old Sister Agnes (Ghillian Porter) for most of the younger nun’s life, scoffs at the notion that this sweet, simple, glowing child could have killed her own baby, or even have gotten pregnant, shut away in the convent from all contact with the outside world. Agnes, claims her guardian, “is a slate that hasn’t been touched, except by God.”
Dr. Livingstone (Sheri S. Herren) begs to disagree, noting that this slate somehow got written on by someone with a sperm count, and that the court has asked her to determine why Agnes claims not to remember anything about either her pregnancy or the death of her baby. Agnes, when she’s not being interrogated or hypnotized, mostly turns her eyes heavenward and sings, appearing by turns childlike, coquettish, and beatific. Porter’s performance is beguiling, whether the character is revealing more than she means to (“suffering is beautiful; I want to be beautiful”), or digging in her heels and refusing to understand the questions she’d rather not face.
In Susan Marie Rhea’s spare, direct staging, with its billowing white curtains, helpfully ethereal music, and carefully considered lighting shifts, it’s easy enough to see why both the chain-smoking psychiatrist and the flinty Mother Superior would feel protective of Agnes. And because Pielmeier has a lovely way with a line—“It’s only a breath with sound,” says Dr. Livingstone, coaxing an answer from her fearful patient—you’ll likely be persuaded to go along and feel protective yourself.
Less persuasive is the juggling the author does—both the psychiatrist and Mother Superior have familial relationships that make them suspicious of the other’s motives—to keep his ideas in the air for two-plus hours. The play’s troubled-shrink-vs.-uncommunicative-youth approach to illuminating a brutal act of violence has always struck me as Equus lite (local audiences can comparison-shop starting this weekend, as the Washington Shakespeare Company begins previews of Peter Shaffer’s opus), but there are enough grace notes in Pielmeier’s script to hold an audience.
For an act and a half, the playwright manages to maintain a balance between religious and medical certainties (“the wonder of science is not in the answers it provides but in the questions it uncovers”), but he must eventually come down on one side or the other. For though Agnes may seem a portrait of innocence to both of the women tugging at her, an even more innocent life was lost; to explain that loss, the author must trot out a laundry list’s worth of shrinkage—abusive and absent parents, hallucinations, paranoia, family secrets—until the evening’s denouement feels almost as if it’s been vetted by the American Psychiatric Association.
A similar overload afflicts Never the Sinner, though John Logan’s drama—about the two privileged Chicago teens who in 1924 decided it might be fun to deliver a few fatal chisel blows to the skull of their schoolmate Bobby Franks—has been tricked up with some novel accoutrements to make the author’s dependence on explanatory footnotes palatable at Source Theatre.
In Jeffrey Johnson’s staging for Actors’ Theatre of Washington, a horseshoe of footlights is backed by a movie screen on which the case will be advanced, with projected banner headlines taking the place of those usually barked by a sort of Greek chorus of newspaper reporters. Photos of the real Nathan “Babe” Leopold and Richard “Dickie” Loeb (plus defense attorney Clarence Darrow and the prosecutor whose name was forgotten as soon as the case was closed) serve as reminders that the events being depicted have a basis in fact. Dialogue taken from court transcripts is so labeled in projected titles, and though the actors roam the auditorium, and play a few scene fragments as if they were a male Roxie and Velma doing vaudeville sketches, most of the dialogue is handled in a straightforward manner.
All of which allows Johnson to reduce the usual cast of eight to a more manageable three—Joe Brack as a smarmy, theoretically seductive Dickie (though on opening night he was smirking so relentlessly it was hard to know who’d be seduced), Ashley Ivey as a conniving, lovesick Babe, and John C. Bailey as a shambling Darrow, a mule-ish prosecutor, a girlfriend who preens, a cop who lies, and all the other folks who variously torment or try to understand the boys.
And they are just boys, as the author keeps insisting we remember. Boys of privilege who, according to court transcripts, misread Nietzsche and decided they were Ubermenschen, exempt from the laws governing mere mortals. Hormone-addled boys, who, according to the public record, traded favors, with alleged ladies’ man Dickie offering his body to his gay, bird-watching buddy in exchange for some recreational ultraviolence.
Either way, they’re boys who perpetrated a senseless crime—enacted onstage twice, to account for the differing version of events they gave the police—and who remained remorseless about it to their dying day. It’s precisely that lack of feeling that makes them intriguing for a time, but having hooked us with a whydunnit come-on, Logan renders the answer beside the point, turning his second act into an extended referendum on capital punishment. Darrow and the prosecutor are suddenly front and center, and the questions become: Should a death sentence bother us more because these boys are just boys? Did their wealth affect the treatment they got in court? Is society exacting payback because they refuse to act contrite?
The whys of their criminality were more compelling, of course, but in a contemporary psychodrama, they’re also self-evident, so it’s hard to blame Logan for trying to take the play in another direction. These days, few playwrights think it necessary to state what psychiatry has rendered so obvious—that the fault, dear Dickie and Babe, and Agnes, too—lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.CP