Defense Mechanism

Some plays transport you back through time by parading actresses in hoop skirts across the stage or bathing the scenery in the simulated flicker of gas lamps, but Clarence Darrow, now at Coral Gables's New Theatre, accomplishes the feat by presenting nothing more than ideas. Based on the life of Darrow, considered by some to be the most influential attorney of this century, David Rintel's one-man show starring actor Bill Hindman recalls an era when lawyers meant more than punch lines and liberals pushed through social reforms they thought would last forever.

Born in 1857 and admitted to the Ohio bar in 1878, Darrow hardly seemed destined to become the foremost legal-social crusader of his day. After moving to Chicago in 1887, he took a job as city counsel and later general attorney for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Then in 1895, while investigating a case involving a strike against his employer, he quit his job to handle the defense of accused railway workers.

From that day until his death in 1938, Darrow used the courts in an effort to legislate the nation's morality in a number of high-profile cases that secured workers' rights, upheld free speech, and sought an end to capital punishment. Far from being a musty old legal footnote, Darrow's argument on behalf of high school teacher John Scopes's right to teach evolution in public schools and his impassioned plea for leniency for teenage thrill-killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb still echo in contemporary First Amendment battles and death penalty trials.

At New Theatre, Hindman's Darrow walks on-stage wearing a conservative three-piece gray pinstripe suit, white shirt, and dark tie, looking to be the age when most men contemplate retirement. Comfortably meandering about Carlos I. Arditti's stunning triptych set that re-creates Darrow's cozy living room, his austere law office, and a commanding center stage courtroom, Darrow briefly recounts his Civil War boyhood in Ohio as the son of "freethinkers" who supported women's suffrage and helped escaped slaves on their way north through the underground railroad.

With a frank and amicable manner, Hindman speaks directly to the audience from the stage's edge, ingratiating himself as if Darrow were making friends with a jury that will render a verdict on how he has lived his life. Calling his profession "a bum job," Darrow nonetheless glows when describing his love for the legal arena's clash of great minds and ideas.

Moving to his office, he outlines the facts of his first significant case, in which he successfully defended Eugene V. Debs, then president of the American Railway Union (and a five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate), who led his railway-car factory workers during the 1894 Pullman strike. Pulling from a cubbyhole an old brochure describing the bucolic town where Pullman cars were manufactured, Darrow relates what he discovered during his fact-finding trip there: The whitewashed main street hid filthy tenements where the company's workers, after paying rent, lived on four cents per week. Darrow explains to his railroad employers that only self-interest would allow him to oppose the strikers in court, and he resigns his job as a corporate lawyer, setting in motion his lifelong role as champion of the underdog.

With mounting disgust, Darrow reminds us that the fight for an eight-hour workday and the passage of child-labor laws involved pitched battles against the government, which regularly slapped injunctions on strikers and sent in troops to disperse protesters. Looking through his window at Chicago streets, Darrow chokes with rage as he describes the city's use of brute force against demonstrators supporting the Pullman strike.

Having shown what drives him to take on unpopular causes, Darrow moves to the courtroom, where he relives moments from his most famous cases, including the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," in which he squared off against famed orator and statesman William Jennings Bryan. Removing his jacket to reveal suspenders, Darrow appears to be just a good ol' boy -- that is, until he approaches the witness stand to question an unseen witness on the accuracy of the Bible. Once he has established that God made the world in seven days counted in alternating periods of day and night, Darrow asks how the sun was created on the third day if without its existence the first two days would have been impossible.

A well-known agnostic, Darrow devoted much of his court time to fighting the devil he knew rather than the one he didn't in numerous capital punishment cases, saving more than 100 defendants from death. Addressing an invisible jury, he pleads for the lives of his two most notorious clients, Leopold and Loeb, who, in what was for decades called "the crime of the century," murdered a fourteen-year-old boy simply to prove that they could. Darrow's impassioned arguments against the death penalty took place in 1924 -- producing a controversial verdict of life imprisonment for his two rich defendants -- but they nonetheless come across as eerily topical.

In depicting these cases and others, Rintel's play glorifies Darrow's courtroom accomplishments while seldom pausing to offer evidence that would enable us to judge his personal life. (A lawyer as well as a playwright, Rintel created the television series The Defenders, Slattery's People, The Senator, and The Young Lawyers.) Reasoning with unseen wives, Darrow alludes to the failure of his eighteen-year marriage to a "girl with a lot of small town in her [who] grew not to like to do things," and discounts rumors of his philandering during his three-decadelong second marriage. But those tidbits and a mention of Darrow's son are never fully explored, as the script rushes on to the next cross-examination.

With only Steve Shapiro's evocative sound design -- rain, mob scenes, and courtroom noises -- to aid him, Hindman masterfully attempts to provide the missing emotional canvas for Darrow's jurisprudence masterpieces. Re-enacting Darrow's own trial on trumped-up charges of jury tampering, Hindman augments the script's dry testimony with layers of distress, indignation, and outrage, prompting his Darrow to address the jury in his own defense. Choosing not to use makeup in an effort to resemble Darrow physically, Hindman instead relies on his genuine rapport with the audience and his natural statesmanlike bearing to make us believe we are in the presence of a remarkable man.

In fact, the success of Clarence Darrow has always depended on the charisma of its star. Written for Henry Fonda, it premiered on Broadway in 1974 in a production directed by John Houseman, but owing to Fonda's unexpected illness, the show closed less than a month later. After Fonda's recovery and a brief tour, the play reopened on Broadway a year later only to close after eighteen performances.

The reason seems plain: Lacking a multifaceted script and interplay between actors, Clarence Darrow quickly becomes predictable. Although liberals can cheer being on the winning side and theater fans can relish a tour de force performance, the play's quick courtroom summaries lack the mainstream dramatic appeal and box-office staying power of two fictionalized plays about Darrow's exploits. On Broadway for more than two years after its 1955 debut, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's Inherit the Wind (about the Scopes trial) proved such a crowd pleaser that it was made into both a 1960 feature film starring Spencer Tracy and a 1988 TV movie with Kirk Douglas and Jason Robards. The Leopold-Loeb trial also got the "based on a true story" treatment in Meyer Levin's 1957 novel and play Compulsion, which ran for four months on Broadway and was made into a 1959 movie with Orson Welles. Fully dramatizing a complete trial, each play involves the audience in Darrow's legal struggles and adds to his legend; Clarence Darrow, on the other hand, merely supplies a greatest-hits tour.

Director Rafael de Acha adroitly compensates for the unvaried script by saving the courtroom setting for actual testimony; he presents Darrow reflecting about his cases in his home or office. De Acha is abetted by Pedro "Piri" Remirez's discreet lighting, which creates subtle mood and atmosphere changes.

Despite its well-crafted design and engaging star, Clarence Darrow ultimately comes across like a segment of the old CBS TV series You Are There, in which historical events were presented as newscasts. While Darrow's eyewitness accounts are interesting, they lack the colorful characters and the emotional context that make history come alive.

Clarence Darrow.
Written by David Rintel; directed by Rafael de Acha; with Bill Hindman. Through November 16. For more information call 443-5909 or see "Calendar Listings.


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