Rubicon’s “Clarence Darrow” Invokes Populism and Passion in Riveting Production

REVIEW BY CARY GINELL

It’s funny how many shows we’ve seen recently that bring to mind concepts evident in the current election season. In In the Heights, it was the plight of immigrants trying to make lives for themselves in America, in Amadeus, it was a lead character with an obsessive personality, and in Ragtime, it was a character who seeks justice for a racially-based assault. In David W. Rintels’ one-man play, Clarence Darrow, which made its debut last weekend at the Rubicon Theatre Company, reexamines the life of a man whose philosophy of democratic socialism reflects the political philosophy of Democratic challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders.

Clarence Darrow (1857 – 1938) was one of the most famous lawyers in American history. During his forty-year career, he routinely championed the “oppressed and the weak,” a populist supporter of labor leader and Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who battled powerful corporations and those who he believed were taking advantage of the “unfortunate souls” of society. The common themes in the cases Darrow took on often reflected his vehement opposition to prejudice and capital punishment. In the play, Darrow takes great pride in declaring that of 102 men who faced the death penalty in cases in which he presided on the side of the defense, none was hanged. 

Playing Darrow in this remarkable production is Rubicon Theatre Company co-founder and artistic director emeritus James O’Neil. O’Neil, whose great-grandfather Henry Darrow was Clarence Darrow’s first cousin, had wanted to play his famous ancestor for the past fifteen years. In the program notes, he recalled, “My family always took great pride in Clarence Darrow’s efforts to make social change.” Rubicon’s current artistic director, Karyl Lynn Burns, who is also O’Neil’s wife, remarked on the uncanny resemblance between O’Neil and Darrow: “There’s no mistaking the lineage,” she said. “They have common facial features and body types and their posture is also similar.”

O’Neil plays Darrow as a rumpled, folksy Midwesterner, wearing a gray, three-piece suit, complete with watch fob. He speaks in a dotted rhythm drawl and replicates Darrow’s ability to entrance juries almost as if he were a musician performing a solo sonata for them. Plainspoken and passionate, Darrow thought of himself as “a humanist first and a lawyer second.” In his portrayal, O’Neil magnificently brings Darrow to life, both visually and in his recollections of many of his most famous cases. 

The most celebrated of these was the so-called “Monkey Trial,” in which high school teacher John T. Scopes was, in 1925, accused of violating an act prohibiting the teaching of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in the public schools of Tennessee. Scopes’ trial was dramatized in Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edward Lee’s 1955 play Inherit the Wind and the subsequent 1960 motion picture, which starred Spencer Tracy as defense attorney Henry Drummond, a character based on Darrow. The high point of the play came when Drummond summoned the prosecuting attorney, blustery orator Matthew Harrison Brady (based on populist politician William Jennings Bryan) to the witness stand to interrogate him on aspects of the Bible. In Clarence Darrow, O’Neil masterfully recreates the scene, removing his coat and rolling up his sleeves in the oppressive Tennessee heat as he peppers Bryan with questions about fundamentalists’ literal interpretations of the Holy Scriptures.

Surprisingly, the Scopes trial is not the dramatic high water mark of Clarence Darrow. A good deal of time is devoted to a case resulting from the 1910 dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times building and subsequent trial of two brothers, James and John McNamara, members of an iron worker’s union. The bombing killed twenty-one people and injured more than one hundred others. Darrow was hired to represent the McNamaras in their defense, but during the course of the trial, became convinced of their guilt and had them change their plea to guilty. During the trial, Darrow himself was humiliated when he was charged with jury tampering, which all but quashed any hopes of a plea bargain. O’Neil is especially powerful during this sequence, as Darrow agonizes on his next move after revealing his doubts to his clients about their innocence. 

Other prominent cases during Darrow’s career are examined in the play, including the defending of Pennsylvania coal miners in a dispute over working conditions and the 1924 kidnapping and murder of a fourteen-year-old boy by two University of Chicago students, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who committed the murder as an exercise to see if they could commit “the perfect crime.” 

In a talkback session after last Wednesday night’s performance, O’Neil was joined by Ventura County Superior Court Judge Steven Perren, an occasional actor himself, who remarked on the similarities between the crafts of Darrow as an attorney and O’Neil as an actor portraying him. Both lawyers and actors are entrusted with the job of convincing through meticulous preparation: the attorney presenting a case to a judge or a jury and an actor’s portrayal as another character. The discussion about courtroom strategies was almost as fascinating as the play itself.

Director Jenny Sullivan staged Clarence Darrow in the round, a first for the Rubicon, with seats added onto the stage that separated O’Neil from the other half of the audience. In the talkback session, O’Neil explained how the unorthodox format enhanced his performance, giving him a sense of “inclusion and immersion,” adding that the experience was exciting for him. Scenic and lighting designer Thomas S. Giamario effectively utilized pale green spotlights when O’Neil, as Darrow, delivered his courtroom orations, which were taken verbatim from court records.  

As a lifelong foe of capital punishment and populist champion of the downtrodden, Clarence Darrow was a potent force in shaping not just the American labor movement of the early 20th century, but was a forerunner of some of the constructs that are still evident in today’s political landscape. Clarence Darrow, one of the theater’s first one-man portrayals of a historical figure, remains a fascinatingly satisfying and compelling work, with O’Neil’s performance a unique and towering achievement. 

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Clarence Darrow plays through June 12 at the Rubicon Theatre Company. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar. 

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