at Stage Left Theatre
“The lovers’ happiness was threatened by a world that labeled them too young and tried to separate the two,” reads the press release for the Saratoga Company’s Starkweather. “In some respects, Caril and Charlie were victims . . . [who] never had much of a chance to begin with.”
If one did not know who Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate were and what they did, it would be easy to see them as two misunderstood teenagers caught in the prejudice and narrow-mindedness of midwestern working-class society in the late 1950s. (“Everything came down to my wanting to be with Caril,” Charlie says in the play. “To live with Caril, to die with Caril. I did it all for her.”) Playwrights Eric Lumbard and Sara Hammerman–who also play Charlie and Caril in this production–are both young enough to fall into this trap. Then too, escalating violence and advances in technology have made Starkweather and Fugate’s ten-victim body count pretty puny by today’s standards of mass murder.
Starkweather shows us two lovebirds hugging and holding hands, sharing optimistic dreams, and meeting in Romeo-and-Juliet secrecy. It does not show them shooting, stabbing, and bludgeoning Fugate’s family, including her baby stepsister whose only crime was to scream at the angry noises. We do meet the victims, composed and collected and ignorant of the menace at hand, but we never hear them plead for their lives or sob in pain and fright. We see Charlie fire a rifle but don’t see anyone fall; we see him beat his fist against a couch but never see the bloody knife in his hand or the terrified young woman he tied to a bed and stabbed repeatedly. When the police finally apprehend the fugitives after a three-week flight, Charlie’s first words are “The girl had nothing to do with it. Don’t get too rough with her.” But after learning that his beloved has represented herself as a hostage rather than an accomplice, he declares her to be “the most trigger-happy person I ever knew. . . . When I go to the chair, she should be sitting in my lap.”
What ultimately proves the play’s undoing, however, is not its sentimental attitude toward psychopathic slaughter but its inability to convince us of the characters’ uniqueness and humanity. Lumbard and Hammerman originally conceived Starkweather as two interconnecting monologues–an appropriate mode of expression for a pair of loners like Starkweather and Fugate. And indeed much of the play’s action takes place during their incarceration in separate prison cells. But though scenes have been added to allow Charlie and Caril to address one another and to interact with the other people in their lives, their dialogue still feels more like words recalled in solitude than spontaneous utterance. Most of the play consists of Lumbard and Hammerman reciting speeches directly to the audience, immobilized in individual pools of light, faces frozen into characteristic masks–a leprechaun smirk in Lumbard’s case, a girlish pout in Hammerman’s. By contrast Craig Carlisle, playing all the other roles, acts up a storm, but since his characters–police officers, neighbors, victims, attorneys–are there primarily to harass Charlie and Caril, he mainly hovers in the background and cues the two main speakers.
The wooden quality of the dialogue may be the result of taking material from court transcripts and Starkweather’s journal. (“I’m writing my life story,” Charlie tells a prison guard, who shrugs, “That shouldn’t take long.”) Or perhaps it’s wooden because director Lisa Gingerich was reluctant to interfere with the performers’ interpretations of their own material. But whatever the reason, Starkweather fails to give these enigmatic figures the vitality they need to become whole, distinct human beings. The story’s contradictions may raise questions, but the play never provides anything as substantial as a genuine conflict.
Lumbard, Hammerman, and the Saratoga Company have done their research well, but they’ve not yet come up with a play, one that gives us insights into these two star-crossed misfits. Starkweather himself may have hit on the problems inherent in their story when he declared that he would rather be executed as a cold-blooded killer than be found not guilty by reason of insanity. He asked rhetorically, “Who remembers a crazy guy?” Of course the reasons a crazy guy kills might be interesting, but Starkweather doesn’t provide them.