“[Leo Frank] sneaked along behind her, ’til she reached the little room / He laughed and said, ‘Lil’ Mary, you met your fatal doom.'”
—From the song “Little Mary Phagan” by Fiddlin’ John Carson
On April 27, 1913, Mary Phagan was found dead in the basement of an Atlanta pencil factory where she’d recently worked. The factory superintendent, a transplanted New York Jew named Leo Frank, was falsely but conveniently charged with raping and murdering the 13-year-old, Georgia-born, Christian white girl. A highly publicized trial ensued, conducted in an atmosphere of bigotry and rage. On August 25, Frank was sentenced to hang. Two years later, in an act of moral courage amounting to political suicide, Georgia governor John Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence to life in prison. A group calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan (whose members reportedly included sheriffs, mayors, bankers, and a former state governor) responded by kidnapping Frank from his cell and lynching him before a large and festive crowd.
Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown recount these events in their Tony-winning 1998 musical, Parade, getting a powerful—and surprisingly charming—production now at Writers Theatre. Their narrative doesn’t start with the trial, though, or the commutation or even the murder. Instead, it reaches back a half century, to the time of the Civil War. The first thing we see is a Georgia boy saying good-bye to the “old red hills of home” before heading off to fight for the Confederacy.
Which sums up Parade‘s crucial insight, and the source of its considerable smarts and compassion: an awareness that Frank’s railroading was only incidentally about Frank. Or Mary Phagan, for that matter. The whole ugly business had its roots in the collective humiliation suffered by the white southerners in the war, the loss of what they idealized as an Edenic agrarian culture, and their subjugation to a northern industrial economy foisted on them by what they denigrated as aliens and inferiors. In that context, the Frank trial—with its Cornell-educated, child-labor-exploiting, ethnic villain and its fatherless, working-class, homegrown victim—couldn’t have provided better optics for populist demagogues of the time. (You can draw your own conclusions about present-day parallels.) Not at all incidentally, the parade of the title is the one held on Confederate Memorial Day, which falls every April 26—the day Mary Phagan died. Talk about optics.
Every musical is a kind of ritual, and Uhry and Brown make elegant use of the stations of Frank’s cross to create an almost Brechtian frame for their tale, allowing political and historical resonances to play through it. But they also allow for something much more intimate. Even as Parade explores the dialectics of the Frank trial, it also gives us a Frank love story, following Leo and his wife, Lucille, as they conquer their own cultural divide—only one dimension of which has to do with the fact that Lucille was a born southerner, like Phagan. News accounts at the time characterized Leo as self-contained and reticent; a courtroom drawing depicts him owl-eyed in glasses, sitting with legs crossed and arms folded as he gives testimony. Indeed, his apparent coldness was mistaken for a sign of guilt. As embodied here by Patrick Andrews, the Leo we encounter early on isn’t merely shy but difficult in a classically New York way: whiny, superior, impatient with interruptions, and disinclined to be reassuringly brave in a bad situation. His arrogant manner leaves Brianna Borger’s Lucille locked out of the biggest struggle of her life as well as his. The idea that they might fall truly in love during their sojourn in hell is wonderful and compelling in direct proportion to its absurdity.
Gary Griffin‘s staging is clean, clear, and beautifully economical, using Christine Binder’s lights to convey everything from Frank’s sense of isolation to the rectangle marking Phagan’s grave. Conducted by Matt Deitchman under Michael Mahler’s musical direction, the nine-piece band makes crisp work of Brown’s score, which often alludes to period and regional styles. But the quiet triumph of the production is its casting: a marriage of strong talent with looks that in some cases uncannily recall the historical originals. The real Leo and Lucille, in particular, were a visually disparate pair—he short and delicate, she round-faced and full. That Andrews and Borger reproduce the ratios both emphasizes the distance between them and renders the closing of that distance all the more satisfying.
One other, louder triumph: Jonathan Butler-Duplessis as Jim Conley, the pencil-factory janitor whose bartered testimony helped convict Frank. Big-voiced Butler-Duplessis makes Conley almost operatically satanic at times without losing his human anger. He’s quite literally scary good. v