Written by award winning playwright John Logan, Never The Sinner tells the true story of the murder of a teenage boy in 1924.
Set in Chicago, the story itself is an example where truth is stranger than fiction. Two wealthy and educated young men, 18 year old Nathan Leopold Jr and 19 year old Robert Loeb, planned and carried out the murder of 14 year old Bobby Franks. Bobby Franks was merely an innocent victim, chosen randomly at the time.
There are many ways the telling of this story could be approached. Logan interweaves significant moments in the courtroom trial with newspaper headlines of the time and flashbacks. Dramatisation of the months leading up to the actual murder provide some insight into the minds of these two killers, but by the end of the play the burning question of “why” is never really answered – because there is no way to really understand the motivation for this brutal murder.
The story itself is disturbing: two young men choose to randomly kill someone, effectively for the sport of it – to see if it could be done. However, what truly makes for a compelling experience is the superb performances of Broderick McDonald and Blake Stringer as the two convicted killers: Leopold and Loeb.
McDonald is outstanding as Leopold. He superbly articulates some rather challenging passages of dialogue with ease, and gives a convincing performance of this rather quirky, but highly intelligent young man. Leopold is a genius and it is likely that in today’s society he would be labelled as being “on the spectrum”. He’s socially awkward, a misfit and yet in Loeb he finds not just friendship. The homosexual relationship between the two young men is touched on in this play and McDonald’s portrayal of Leopold helps provide some sort of motivation for the killing: the sexual attraction to Loeb and his willingness to do anything to please him, in return for sexual favours.
The motivation behind Loeb is less apparent. Blake Stringer is mesmerising in the role. The cockiness and confidence in his character is quite haunting. Other than a lust for the kill and the sheer arrogant belief that he can literally get away with murder, there is no real explanation to justify his thoughts and actions. If there was ever an appropriate use for the word evil, this is it.
The play takes the audience into the courtroom as Clarence Darrow (Malcolm Sussman) eloquently defends the two killers – not to acquit them of the murder, but rather to avoid the death penalty. Sussman gives a strong and believable performance of what was a landmark closing statement. The other cast include Keith Hutton, Campbell McNish, Freya Timmer-Arends and Steve Saul.
The set is very minimalist in design, but does allow for the performances to really stand out. Wardrobe/costume design by Jayne Ruddick/Jan Fox is well suited and help to establish the era.
The experience of director of Geoff Hickey is evident in this play. The attention to detail in the personae of Leopold and Loeb creates a sense of realism, reminding the audience this is not just a story. The quiet reminder that this actually did happen is disturbing and made even more so in light of recent tragic events in America.
The chilling looks on the faces of both leading actors in the “curtain call” is haunting and will remain with the audience well after they leave. Sometimes there is simply no answer to the question of “Why?”.
Never The Sinner is now playing at the 1812 Theatre. Worth a look.
Photo credit: Ash Walker