CHB Productions

at Talisman Theatre

Coincidentally I went to see Clarence Darrow in Hell on the same day I picked up the February Atlantic magazine, with a cover story by Robert Karen on shame. The article argues that shame plays a huge role in human unhappiness: a child who is continually shamed is likely to develop deep feelings of inadequacy, self-loathing, and anxiety. The ultimate form of this perversion occurs in those abused children who, after being brutally punished for “shameful” behavior, start to think that they deserve their mistreatment.

This is precisely the idea that has gripped the damned in Clarence Darrow in Hell. The authors, Kenan Heise and his son Dan Heise, have adapted the “Inferno,” the first part of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, but reversed Dante’s point of view on hell. In the “Inferno” Dante is given a tour of the underworld by the poet Virgil, who shows him how perfectly God’s punishments fit the sinners’ crimes. In the Heises’ play, Dante himself gives a similar tour to Clarence Darrow, the irascible “lawyer for the damned” as he was called–but unlike Dante, who approves of hell’s horrors, Darrow sees in them only injustice and cruelty.

As the play opens Darrow is standing in line behind Minna Everleigh, who ran a high-class brothel with her sister Ada in Chicago at the turn of the century. They are awaiting the judgment of the fearsome Minos, who assigns newcomers to their eternal torments. When Minos starts to browbeat Minna, ordering her to confess to her “big sins,” Darrow steps forward. “What’s the problem? I’m an attorney,” he says. As Minos flies into a rage, Dante appears and announces that he’s going to take Darrow on a tour of hell, “that he may freely choose his fate.”

That is the essence of the hell that the Heises have imagined–the punished must choose their punishment. Darrow is flabbergasted. “If I am to be condemned, must I do it myself?” he asks. When Dante assures him that this system helps “cleanse” those who suffer, Darrow scoffs “I have heard the same advice before applied by wardens and guards to their prisoners.”

The disagreement between the two men revolves around the distinction between guilt and shame. As Robert Karen points out in the Atlantic, guilt is a response to what we do to others; shame is what we feel about ourselves. The two emotions are often mingled: if I feel guilty about hurting someone, I’ll probably feel ashamed, too. But guilt moves us to seek amends, while shame moves us only to self-abasement.

Dante views the self-abasement of the damned as evidence that they have accepted responsibility for their misdeeds. “What you are witnessing is the ultimate comprehension within these souls of their blame and guilt,” he says to Darrow. “It is an expression of free will.” But Darrow doesn’t buy it. “I have met too many men and women trapped in a sense of their own unworthiness,” he says. Later he explains to the audience that he is trying to make Dante understand “the difference between true justice and the rampant vengeance that drives this hell.”

The play is being done by CHB Productions at the Talisman Theatre, a cramped storefront so dark and dreary that it’s a fitting backdrop for hell. But despite the primitive lighting, costumes, and props that director Michael J. Stewart has to work with, the production is surprisingly effective.

When Charon ferries Darrow, Dante, and Minna across the River Styx, for example, the room fills with smoke that rolls over the floor like fog clinging to water. In this fog the damned appear to be floating underwater, trying to climb aboard the boat and get to the other side so they can begin their punishment. It’s an incredibly eerie scene, created with a few cents’ worth of dry ice and a lot of imagination by set designer Scott Entemann.

Patrick Dollymore’s performance as Darrow is also very effective. Tall and thin with the slightly stooped posture of a shy person, he certainly doesn’t look like a dynamic lawyer; but his voice carries authority, and he infuses his speech with the passionate urgency of a man fighting for justice in a profoundly unjust place. Daniel Tomko’s performance as Dante is masterfully understated, underscoring his character’s solemnity and self-righteousness.

The dialogue is a bit too dense for the stage–the debate between Darrow and Dante sometimes gets lost in the turgid speech. But the debate itself, illuminating the difference between guilt and shame, is compelling.