An American Horror Story @Writers Theatre

3 Stars out of 4

Alfred Uhry’s disturbing Tony Award winning musical Parade now in an all too rare lush professional production at Glencoe’s Writers Theatre is not an uplifting night in the theatre.It is a thought provoking indictment of America’s cultural heritage, and possibly more suited to be an opera than a musical. Based on the true tragedy of Leo Frank, a prominent Jewish scion of Atlanta Georgia who was lynched after being tried for the murder of a 13 year old factory worker, the work highlights the dark underbelly of America’s distinct Southern testosterone soaked tribalism.  Premiering in Glencoe, once one of the more Jewish North Shore suburbs, on this day after Jeremy Joseph Christian is arraigned in court for stabbing two men to death for challenging his righteous belief system, this musical highlights a horrible narrative that is still playing out in American culture.

Which is not to say that this show is without merit, in fact director Gary Griffin has assembled some of the most stellar artists available to unwind this bleak tale.  Patrick Andrews as Leo Frank is the prickly OCD Brooklyn Jew out of place in Atlanta, obsessed with his work and uncomfortable everywhere.  While the show does not portray how deeply committed the real life Frank was to the Jewish community of his time,  Andrews is able to show how Frank develops as a humanist during his lengthy prison stay. His final rendition of the Shema Yisrael, a traditional Jewish prayer, is heartbreaking and moving.  There is a subplot of the growing love story between Leo and his Southern born wife, Lucille, who goes from a traditional in the background spouse, to a tireless advocate for her husband’s innocence.  Played by the luminous Brianna Borger, Lucille Frank may be the only character truly redeemed in this telling.

Frank was only 31 when he was dragged from his cell in his nightshirt, driven 175 miles into rural Georgia and hung  from a tree by 28 upstanding citizens including mayors, lawyers and elected officials, proving perhaps that mob justice is not limited to brown and black people, but to any populist group whipped into a frenzy by media and religious fervor. Leo and Lucille were caught in a web of machinations in their community that they could not untangle: there is the ambitious prosecutor Hugh Dorsey who needed a high profile win to fuel his political career (played here by the solid and schemingKevin Gudahl), the anti-semitic  publisher and politician Tom Watson (played with frightening religious fervor by Jeff Parker) and finally the damning testimony of Jim Conley, who most historians agree was probably the likely perpetrator of the crime.  Played by phenome  Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, Conley here is a showstopping purveyor of what the population wants to hear, a perfect witness for the kangaroo court.  The fact that the prosecutor decided to arraign a white educated businessman over a black man with a criminal record is a statement about  a society whose resentment of Yankees and their brand of capitalism and particularly of Jews was greater than its systemic racism.   The song that starts the second act, “ A Rumblin and A Rollin” notes that no one pays attention when it is black bodies murdered or lynched.  An astute social commentary, but it makes this plot no less bleak. Justice is not served here.  That the ending of the show reaffirms the unchanging nature of Southern culture in a soaring all cast anthem that circles back to the beginning of the show where we started and ended the Civil War was devastating.  I was unable to tell if this deeply flawed conclusion was a failure on the part of the playwright or our culture.  What had we learned in the end? That the South will not be changed? That the debts of a Civil War are not yet paid?

Everything about this show is gorgeous: the sets by Scott Davis, the period costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, the musical direction of the Jason Robert Brown score by Michael Maher, the choreography by Ericka Mac and the direction by Gary Griffin.  Everything except the message. This is the kind of show where you walk out of the theatre silent, thinking and you will still be thinking about it the next day and the next when you read the paper and wonder: are the stories true? Do they focus on them to sell more copies? What is the nature of truth? Is anyone innocent? Leo was complicit with a labor system that exploited children, as were many of the industrial companies of the time. And who is in and who is out in our current culture where someone goes and shoots people because of their headwear or skin color. Anti-Semitism is alive and well in America. Why can we not get beyond the trauma of our history?  And why do we prove time and time again that we are not, as we like to tell ourselves, a nation that abides by the rule of law, but are easily made into a mob.

Perhaps right now more than ever this is must see theatre of the very best quality, but it will not be comfortable and nice.

Parade is playing Tuesday through Sunday  through July 2, 2017 (Ironically scheduled to close right before we celebrate our commitment to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness) at Writers Theatreat 325 Tudor Court in Evanston.  Tickets and information at www.writerstheatre.org or call 847-242-6000. Or go to http://www.theatreinchicago.com/parade/8411/