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Theater Review:

"Execution of Justice," HyperWorld Theatre at Chicago Cultural Center’s Studio Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

During HyperWorld Theatre’s production of "Execution of Justice" at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Studio Theater, it struck me how liberal causes were being unapologetically suppressed a little over 20 years ago – a time lauded for its major social breakthroughs and less restrictive attitudes. Then I realized that our current era of conservative fervor is possibly more frightening than the climate that provoked the assassination in 1978 of liberal San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and openly gay City Supervisor Harvey Milk by ex-police officer and fellow City Supervisor Dan White.

This was a complex case clouded by political agendas and character manipulations – best known for White’s infamous "Twinkie Defense," in which a psychologist claimed his consumption of junk food provoked his sudden violent behavior. So to view this tragic event as a cut-and-dried, good-guy-versus-bad-guy scenario would be to undermine the layered issues surrounding it and the ugly precedent it set.

Emily Mann’s courtroom drama makes a painstaking effort to present the many sides of a trial – using actual courtroom transcripts -- which found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter (not first-degree murder) carrying a mere seven-year and eight-month jail sentence. Painted as a law-abiding family man, who struggled with depression, White was believed by many liberal-minded people to have gotten away with murder. The verdict prompted San Francisco’s gay community to riot, with Milk regarded as a prominent martyr for the Gay Rights Movement.

White committed suicide after being released from jail. But his cold-blooded gunning-down of Moscone and Milk in City Hall created sociopolitical rumbles that can be felt to this day.

Since it was shaped from transcripts, news reports and interviews, Mann’s play is more documentary-like than dramatic in style. It would be quite effective as a radio play. But this format can pose a challenge for actors required to come across as real people at the same time they must master specific theatrical characterizations.

Director Kathleen Collins aims for a straightforward staging, augmented by Chris Thornton’s stinging video and audio collage of real news footage. But many of the actors have not yet determined if they’re simply character types or trying to formally "act" like average people caught in an extraordinary situation. Only Heath Corson as the Judge, Mike Koolidge as White and Lisa May Simpson in multiple roles succeed at genuine, believable portrayals within the rigors of sharp dramatic form. Thornton, who serves as White’s attorney Douglas Schmidt, also shows promise but, on opening night, did not demonstrate a secure grasp of his lines.

In fact, nerves and the fact that most of the cast seemed under-rehearsed attributed to the unfocused and laborious nature of HyperWorld’s production. An inordinate amount of flubbed lines and missed cues removed audiences from the urgency of the story at hand. One got the sense that the actors were struggling so hard to remember and speak their lines properly that their characters’ nuance and depth evaporated. To compensate, they resorted to mannered portrayals – as detrimental as their linguistic fumbling.

We can only hope that, by now, the actors have mastered the script – so crucial in a work that relies microscopically on language and how the most minuscule twist of a word or syllable could mean the difference between true justice and crafty manipulation parading as justice.•

HyperWorld Theatre’s production of "Execution of Justice" runs through March 30 at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Studio Theater, 77 E. Randolph. Tickets: $12. Call 773-784-8100 or log onto www.HyperWorldTheatre.com.

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