Bry brings Darrow alive onstage

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By Doug Deuchler

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I'm fascinated by people who wear a variety of hats. Do you know Oak Park native, lawyer and actor Kevin Bry? He has appeared in numerous local productions over the past decade. Bry has also written several original dramatic works, including Our Village, a historical epic which recreates the exhilarating story of Oak Park, beginning in the earliest pioneer days.

Attorney Bry's latest theatrical effort, which plays one more weekend at the Madison Street Theatre, 1010 Madison, is an absorbing one-man show in which he portrays the most famous and controversial trial lawyer of the 20th century, Clarence Darrow (1857-1938). The 90-minute, two-act show is called Trials and Tribulations: Reflections on the Life and Legal Career of Clarence Darrow.

Bry does an excellent job bringing the great social justice warrior to life. It's an impressive effort that immerses us in some of the key historic controversies of Darrow's long and remarkable career. Even if you know little about this long-ago lawyer or the now remote period depicted, Bry's script and performance are fascinating and hold one's attention.

This new play is chillingly timely and relevant to our current national situation. Larger-than-life Darrow defended terrorists and high-profile murderers. He addressed issues of racial justice, challenged conspiracy laws, and defended the teaching of science and evolution over biblical "creationism" in the public school classroom. He was also a conflicted individual who was honest but devious. In one case he may even have been guilty of jury tampering.

You may recall actor Henry Fonda did a one-man portrayal of Clarence Darrow a generation ago. That performance, slanted to highlight the actor's folksy charm, was well received but did not effectively portray the harsher aspects of the career of this most celebrated, and possibly most hated, lawyer in American history.

A master of the courtroom stage, Darrow took unpopular stands on many issues. He was an adamant opponent of capital punishment. Because he fought for the underdog, taking on cases believed to be hopeless, Darrow was often called the "attorney for the damned." He frequently braved the wrath of the entire nation. His 1911 defense of the McNamara brothers, accused of bombing the Los Angeles Times building which killed 21 people, was a case not unlike the Oklahoma City Timothy McVeigh terrorist bombing.

Though the show is structured in the form of a monologue, Darrow isn't the only one speaking.

"I've developed the flow of the play in several voices, not just Darrow's," Bry told me. At times the actor clarifies and comments, depicting other characters in the lawyer's life. Mostly, of course, he speaks as Darrow, but at times he also speaks as himself, a 21st century attorney reflecting on the issues and controversial cases being examined. Holding the audience's attention throughout, Bry delineates many episodes of the lawyer's career development.

Settling in Chicago in the era of the Haymarket Riot, late in the 19th century, Darrow's high-profile career took off when he gave up his lucrative job as a corporate lawyer and represented union leader Eugene Debs in an 1890s labor dispute.

During the 1920s, he was the defense counsel in two of the biggest trials of the period: the Chicago murder trial of "thrill killers" Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who murdered a 14-year-old neighbor boy (1924), and the so-called "Monkey Trial" of John Scopes, a young schoolteacher barred from teaching evolution (1925). In the widely publicized Scopes trial, agnostic Darrow was pitted against Protestant fundamentalist orator William Jennings Bryan.

Both of these famous trials became the subjects of future dramatic works. The Leopold and Loeb case was fictionally featured in Alfred Hitchcock's movie Rope, as well as the film Compulsion, in which Orson Welles played the Darrow character. The Scopes trial was illustrated in the landmark play Inherit the Wind. Spencer Tracy played Darrow in the film version.

Bry also presents the less well known but thoroughly harrowing 1926 case of Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African-American physician who defended his family when their bungalow was attacked by a white mob after they'd moved into an all-white Detroit neighborhood. When Sweet fought back, firing a pistol at his attackers, one of them got shot and another was killed. During the Ossian Sweet civil rights trial, Darrow confronted the prejudice of the jury and established sympathy for the Sweet family, victims of racial hatred.

Using Darrow's own thoughts and courtroom summations, Bry explores timeless social, legal and ethical issues. His script is both nuanced and entertaining. Darrow was known for his quick wit and oratorical dexterity in and out of the courtroom, which we experience. His trials are still controversial and inspiring.

Bry is costumed in a vintage suit and when he takes off his jacket, we see suspenders like those visible in so many courtroom photographs of Darrow in action. The set is simple. Stage left is an easy chair, end table and floor-lamp. Stage right is a lecture podium. On the rear wall, photographic images from history are projected, ranging from early Chicago street scenes to portraits of the lawyer's famous clients.

Michelle Springer is the stage manager. Mary Pat Sieck, Diane Pingle, and Elizabeth Moisant provided artistic feedback and assistance. Ari Pingle is the box office manager.

At the end of the play, Bry remains on stage to answer questions. On opening night, one audience member asked the actor-lawyer-playwright if Darrow were still around, would he defend a terrorist like Osama Bin Laden? "I have no doubt that he would," said Bry. It's that kind of immediacy during this dramatic work and its follow-up Q&A that helps us clarify and understand the controversial Darrow, who fought oppression and worked for social justice, when it was unpopular, even when it was hated. This is the kind of theater evening that has the power to make you see our history in a new light.

Trials and Tribulations, a captivating new work at the Madison Street Theatre, has only two performances remaining.

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