Spilling blood in the courtroom3/11/2015
Drama can be all in the eyes. Rich Richards, the whole show in “Clarence Darrow,” can raise the tension with a hardening stare or lighten it with a sidelong glance. In a late rehearsal, his look even seemed to change the scenery, going from a seat in a small-town ballpark to staggering back from a Chicago riot.
Granted, the actor threw in a good deal of body English as well. Still, he kept his audience close. According to Richards and his director, Shawn Wilson, that’s the only way RTI’s new production will work.
“We want it to feel as if you’ve stopped in Darrow’s office and he’s starting telling stories,” says Wilson.
“He’s regaling you with stories,” agrees Richards. “This is his way of relaxing — to share his amazing history.”
History would have been different without Clarence Darrow. Back in the 1890s, this lawyer took on some of America’s most vicious robber barons, and his victories helped insure humane work conditions. In the 1920s, he won landmark cases for African-Americans and helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1925 came the famous “Monkey Trial” in which he defended a Tennessee teacher who dared to teach Darwin.
That trial itself became the basis for a hit play, “Inherit the Wind,” which later was made into a film. In the 1970s, David Rintels pulled together this one-man show, using the lawyer’s court documents and other writings. For the title role, he was lucky enough to reel in icon Henry Fonda. With Fonda’s clout, the show went to Broadway. One production last year starred Kevin Spacey.
To attract players like that, “Darrow” has got to offer more than a history lesson. Its courtroom battles have to leave blood on the stage — as Rich Richards, a longtime Federal prosecutor, knows they can. So while the script tosses in a bit of the personal, with Darrow’s Ohio upbringing, his failed marriage and subsequent lovers (by the 1920s, he was a proponent of free love), what this show emphasizes is the adversarial nature of the legal system.
The set features a witness stand front and center, which separates the audience to either side of the stage. In the same way, two major pieces of furniture stand opposed: a battleship of a desk and a slant-top defendants’ dock. Working from one to the other, Richards offers some of America’s most eloquent defenses of civil liberty and workers’ rights. Yet while the argument can be political, indeed Socialist, Richards and Wilson keep it lively.
“Because we use Darrow’s courtroom presentations, a lot of the drama is presentational,” Richards explains, a Shakespeare soliloquy, ranging far and wide and rising to a crescendo.
“After all, in the courtroom, Darrow was a master of drama,” he said.
Sometimes, it would seem, simply by shifting his gaze.
Overheard in the Lobby: The Playhouse has added an extra performance for “The Somewhat True Robin Hood” on March 14. CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.