'Never the Sinner': Crime and punishment in Chicago

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Entertainment,Theater,Barbara Mackay

In 1924, there was a horrific crime and celebrated trial in Chicago. Two teenagers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, from extremely wealthy families, kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy simply for the excitement of committing "the perfect crime."

In 1985, John Logan wrote a play about the trial, a play that is now being produced at 1st Stage -- "Never the Sinner," directed effectively by Jeremy Skidmore. It is a fascinating analysis of the amoral philosophy that led Leopold and Loeb to do what they did.

The play is framed as a courtroom drama questioning a mystery: Why would two young men who have it all in terms of intelligence, money and social standing risk their lives in order to commit a brutal crime? In a series of short scenes, Logan introduces Leopold (Stephen Russell Murray) and Loeb (Alex Mandell), natty in their three-piece suits (the wonderful 1930s costumes are by Laree Lentz). They begin to know one another, drinking and birdwatching together, since Leopold is an avid ornithologist. And they start to plot their crime. The boys are seen later with reporters (Sun King Davis, Amber Jackson, Adam Downs), who pepper them with questions.

The set, by Robbie Hayes, recalls a 1920s radio studio, echoing the era. People speak into a microphone, establishing the date and reading relevant newspaper headlines. Other characters sit on the sides of the stage, creating sound effects. The production's swift movement from scene to scene is choreographed smoothly by Matthew Gardiner.

Onstage
'Never the Sinner'
» Where: 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons
» When: Through April 14
» Info: $15 to $25; 703-854-1856; 1ststagetysons.org

Murray is compelling as the quiet, nature-loving Leopold, making clear Leopold's reticence in the murder. He effectively did what he did because Loeb told him to and because he was infatuated with Loeb. Mandell plays Loeb as creepily cool and unaffected by the killing, as he plans it, does it and confesses to it.

Eric Lucas appears as the state's attorney, turning in a very solid performance as a man who is horrified by the murder.

The title of the play comes from a quote from Clarence Darrow (Michael Kramer), who was the defense attorney: "I can see sin in all the world. And I may well hate that sin, but never the sinner." Darrow was a fierce opponent of the death penalty and used the trial to argue against it. Kramer reflects perfectly Darrow's sly, homespun humor and absolute brilliance. His moving closing argument is the high point of the play.

The Leopold-Loeb murder was beyond gruesome. This crisp production of "Never the Sinner" effectively takes that outrageous fact and turns it into an event that can never be forgiven or forgotten but can at least be analyzed and not simply dismissed as pure evil.

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