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Execution of Justice

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Execution of Justice, HyperWorld Theatre, at the Chicago Cultural Center. When Emily Mann's docudrama premiered in 1984, the events it recounted were recent: the 1978 assassinations of liberal San Francisco mayor George Moscone and gay activist Harvey Milk by their conservative rival Dan White, White's murder trial and conviction on the lesser charge of manslaughter, the ensuing street violence between enraged gays and police, and White's suicide. But 25 years later, the play--whose text comes entirely from court transcripts and other public records--needs a strong sense of context to jolt viewers into outrage. Director Kathleen Collins's earnest but lackluster revival fails to convey the passionate intensity of the cultural war in which Milk and Moscone were martyrs.

What does come across, ironically, is sympathy for White, whose actions were attributed in court to "diminished capacity" caused in part by gorging on junk food (the infamous "Twinkie defense"). Deeply felt performances by Mike Koolidge as White and Niki Williams as his wife place the focus on White's personal tragedy: untreated mental illness made him vulnerable to manipulation by right-wing elements, who championed him during his trial but left him to sink into suicidal depression after a short stint in prison. His is a sad tale--but here it wrongly overshadows the more important story of how American history was altered by the deaths of two of its most promising liberal leaders.

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