Victory Gardens Theater

The Clarence Thomas hearings may have been unsatisfying as democratic process but they were riveting theater–and for precisely the same reason: we came to see that the man who would be justice was fundamentally unknowable. We could listen to him all day, and many of us did, never learning a single thing that we wanted, or needed, to know.

So things went to pieces, and an enormous audience was hooked by the peculiar magic of uncertainty. It wasn’t that Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill and their supporters and detractors presented their cases dramatically. Indeed, though one commentator after another carried on about the passion of the proceedings, the language was the same old cautious bureaucratese that torments us everywhere. The drama came in our heightened awareness of concealment. The more we hungered to know about Thomas and Hill, the richer we found their bland words, the more emotional life we saw behind their reticence.

That same process is the driving engine of Hauptmann, John Logan’s powerful historical drama about the crime of the century–the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. Did the German-immigrant carpenter Bruno Richard Hauptmann kidnap the only son of America’s hero Charles Augustus Lindbergh? Or did Hauptmann go to the electric chair the victim of prejudice, hysteria, and poor judgment? We can’t know. But at the end of the evening, after studying Hauptmann’s words and manner for some clue to the truth, we come away with a sense of mysteries that, though they’re all around us, we haven’t sensed before.

We meet Hauptmann in the cell where he awaits execution, a man watched around the clock lest he hang himself or slice his wrist on the edge of his cup. He wants to tell his story, he says. “I speak and it is forever–at least as long as forever goes.” And speak he does. Though six supporting actors take on a variety of roles–policemen, lawyers, witnesses, Hauptmann’s wife, and the taciturn, aristocratic parents of the victim–the show belongs to Hauptmann: arguing, explaining, critiquing, telling the tale of how he’s found himself on the verge of death, a despised and convicted man.

Denis O’Hare is splendid in the role. Pale, wiry, and preternaturally alert (think of a young Tony Perkins without the gawkiness), he wins us over at first not because we believe in his innocence but because he has such an appreciation for his own story as story. He loves the drama of what’s happened to him, the glamour. He loves being part of the lives of the glimmering Lindberghs, for all that it costs him. He’s lit up with the sheer joy of narrative as he tells us of the search for the child, the sorrow of the parents, the failed attempt to deal with the kidnapper.

There’s a strange trap here for Hauptmann–and for his audience. To be caught up emotionally in the telling of the tale is somehow to be part of the tale. To make his case to the audience, Hauptmann has to insert himself into the crime–not just imaginatively but onstage, actually. It’s a haunting moment. As the time arrives to narrate the kidnapping itself, to explain how the child came to die, Hauptmann tries not to be the one to tell us. He offers the kidnapper’s coat to the other actors, to members of the audience, before he puts it on himself.

The narration is gorgeous, the finest moment of the play, and one of the finest you’ll see in a Chicago theater this season. “It was cold,” he begins. “He drove to the Lindbergh house . . . ” Hauptmann speaks in third person, of someone else, but with the emotion of one who knows, of one who was there. We hear the crunch of the gravel as he approaches the house, the baby’s breathing in his ear. We watch his wild grasp as the child slips from his hands and falls to his death. We know that in his heart he understands everything, that he has lived the crime.

It’s an immensely pure moment of theater, an elegant clinical experiment in the relation of emotion and narrative that proves, as if we needed it proved, that the stories we tell and the deeds we perform are difficult to distinguish, and that the stage has immutable ambiguities.

Unfortunately the second act, which depicts Hauptmann’s trial, can’t quite measure up. But that’s not a serious complaint. The writing continues to be smart, thoughtful, and well conceived for the stage. Individual moments are superb: Roger Mueller as a whole sequence of witnesses, changing character before our eyes; Donna Powers as Anne Morrow Lindbergh, demonstrating the character’s sorrow by somehow ceasing to act, almost vanishing before our eyes; the splendid Steve Pickering as the prosecutor, self-consciously performing his interrogation. The movement of the act is sensible: first Logan satirizes and batters the witnesses, but then he drags out the incriminating incidents in Hauptmann’s past–the petty crimes, the time in jail–to set up the verdict. He forces us into the same intimate relationship of doubt we all felt with Thomas and Hill.

But the focus just isn’t there. The second act is about guilt and innocence, and the first has already taught us that there are bigger fish to fry.

It’s almost impossible to fault the cast or production on anything. Director Terry McCabe has brought together a technically accomplished ensemble and focused them on a lucid interpretation of a play that could easily turn soft and vague. I think of one moment that really took my breath away. It’s in the first act, the moment that leads up to Hauptmann’s monologue. Steve Pickering is interrogating him, bullying him, taunting him, throwing his own weight around, looking not a little like the Coriolanus he played for Next Theatre last winter. Hauptmann resists, and Pickering explodes, abrupt, violent, and strangely joyous. It’s just a few seconds of stage time, but it provides the intellectual and psychological momentum that gets the following scene working almost magically from the first words. Profound understanding of a worthy script is what makes this sort of theater work. It’s a pleasure to see it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Williams.