A Review

Hatred In The Air

By R. J. Donovan

Having begun the season with the biting, self-righteous society gals of "The Women," SpeakEasy Stage is ending its season with an ambitious production of "Parade," which grinds its teeth with self-righteous bigotry.

Based on an actual murder trial that occurred in Georgia in 1913, "Parade" takes a couple of minor dramatic liberties with the characters while remaining faithful to the bones of the real story. The show's book is by Alfred Uhry, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Both received Tony Awards in 1999 for their efforts.

Set against a celebration of Atlanta's history and heritage, the story swirls around the murder of a sweet 13-year-old factory worker who's been strangled, her crumpled body left in the dusty basement of a pencil factory. 

Leo Frank (Brendan McNab, at left), a Jewish New Yorker and the general manager of the factory, is arrested and found guilty of the murder. He had apparently been the last one to see her alive. 

Did he do it?  We're led to believe he did not.  But thanks to a manipulating parade of lying witnesses, combined with a conniving prosecutor who's promised the Governor a grandstanding court trial, Frank is railroaded all the way to a guilty verdict.

The result is a dark, tragic show that continually hammers its point that blatant bigotry led to the death of an innocent man.

Frank was living in Atlanta to be with his wife, a devoted southerner. The Brooklyn transplant felt out of place, never liked the atmosphere or the people, and never fit in.  Unlike many of his fellow citizens, he was smart, well-read and refined. He was also proud and stubborn. Having forged no strong relationships, there was no one to stand up for him. Except his wife -- who initially was embarrassed to even sit near him in the courtroom.

One of the saddest part of the story is that the Governor, eventually getting at the truth behind the two-faced testimony of the townspeople, commuted Frank's death sentence to life in prison.  That lone act led to his own political downfall.  And it didn't do much good in the end because Frank was subsequently dragged from his jail cell by a mob and hung.

Many other musicals have dealt with tragedy, bigotry and death. However, the authors of "Parade," intentionally or not, seem to be embracing it. "Ragtime" examined racism and bigotry. "Wild Party" has more than its share of lewd debauchery.  And "Assassins" trots out a cast of disturbing murderers. What makes "Parade" difficult to take is that its soaring melodies are consistently coming out of the mouths of some pretty vile folk -- which leaves little room for joy in the show.

The trail of Leo Frank did, however, bring about some good. As Rabbi Howard A. Berman points out in the excellent program notes, the tragedy of the case "mobilized American Jewry in a forceful confrontation of the prejudice and lawlessness it reflected." At the height of the trail, the national B'nai Brith established the Anti-Defamation League to combat anti-Semitism as well as all forms of racism and discrimination throughout the country.

Despite the fact that this is a painful show brimming with overwhelming loss, director Paul Daigneault has fashioned a strong and passionate production, sweeping his enormous cast of 29 through their paces with style and grace.

As Frank, Brendan McNab delivers a subtle performance as the distant outsider who doesn't have a chance.  As his wife Lucille, Bridget Beirne brings that lovely turn of the century look to the proceedings while shifting from conflicted spouse to confident partner. The couple share a tender moment near the end of the show with "All the Wasted Time."

Timothy John Smith provides some of the show's only lighter moments as the drunken reporter who sees the murder case as his opportunity to step into the spotlight ("Big News").  As the sleazy factory watchman who'd sell his own mother down the river, Edward M. Barker provides the ultimate nail for Frank's coffin.

Kerry Dowling is the mother of the murdered girl and once again displays her rich vocal abilities in "My Child Will Forgive Me." David Krinitt is the immoral prosecutor. Terrence O'Malley is the Governor. And finally there's Austin Lesch, who first appears as a young Confederate soldier in the show's prologue, later playing a friend of the murdered Mary. With a soaring singing voice, he opens the show with "The Old Red Hills of Home."

With the travesty of justice on display in "Parade," there's no happy ending here.  Still, it's all indelibly memorable. And maybe that's the point. 

"Parade"is at The Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston, through June 16. For information, call 617-933-8600.

Production Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

SPECIAL NOTE: The Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections Department at Brandeis University houses the Leo Frank Trial Collection, which documents the Frank trail and the struggle to overturn his conviction. Included in the collection is correspondence between Leo Frank and his wife, Lucille, as well as Leo and Lucille's correspondence with outside supporters, Leo's attorneys and the Governor of Georgia, George Slaton.

-- OnStage Boston


To receive an email Update when new pages are posted at OnStage Boston, click here.


© 2002-2004 RJD Associates. All Rights Reserved.
No portion of this site may be reprinted or reproduced without prior written permission.