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Mary Beth Peil in Frame 312
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Set in 1998 as well as in 1963 and 1964, Keith Reddin's Frame 312 is a belated Kennedy assassination conspiracy play. In a wafer-thin plot that wants to feel stone-wall thick, sixtyish Lynette (Mary Beth Peil) is trying not to acknowledge her birthday and seems preoccupied. Meanwhile, her nervous-as-a-cat-on-a-suburban-slate-roof daughter Stephanie (Elizabeth Hanly Rice, who replaced Ana Reeder during previews) and volatile son Tom (Greg Stuhr), who's visiting with wife Marie (Maggie Kiley), attempt to make a celebratory fuss.

Lynette's pressing concern -- information that's revealed by young Lynette (Mandy Siegfried) in the 1960s scenes -- is that she possesses the 22-second film (at 18.3 frames per second) that the much-publicized Abraham Zapruder got of the John F. Kennedy-John Connelly shooting. A Time-Life assistant, young Lynette is in on the film strip's initial viewing and then assigned to take a copy of it to J. Edgar Hoover. She has held on to the hot original for 35 years, keeping it a secret from her family while never escaping its thrall.

Gnawed almost to the point of immobility by her explosive possession, Lynette is convinced that the Zapruder print she delivered to the FBI head has been doctored to confirm the federal government's lone-gunman contention. She's long wondered if, were she to show and tell what she has and knows and were she able to put her finger on what it is in the film that troubles her, the full disclosure would finally prove that Lee Harvey Oswald had an accomplice or accomplices.

In summary, Frame 312 sounds promising. But little of that promise is fulfilled in what is actually a familiar domestic drama about a splintered family. As the recently widowed Lynette mopes on the terrace outside set designer Walt Spangler's depiction of a three-level '60s clapboard home, Stephanie confesses that she's on meds for depression and Tom announces that he needs a $75,000 loan to purchase a new house for himself and Marie -- although their marriage looks to have more problems than a move to new surroundings would solve.

Intermittently, Lynette's reflections run toward her younger self and events that transpired around the Zapruder film, a good deal of those proceedings carried on in tandem with her Time-Life boss, Mr. Graham (Larry Bryggman). It was Graham who pulled Lynette into the loop, entrusted her with the Washington, D.C. obligation and later, when he learned that he was suffering from a fatal illness, insisted that Lynette take the film from him and figure out what to do with it when the time seemed right. Although watching the film repeatedly has greatly upset young Lynette and although she has decided to marry the fellow she's been seeing and quit her position, she reluctantly agrees to safeguard the 400-plus Zapruder frames.

Reddin's apparent purpose in Frame 312 is to illustrate the harm that a family secret can cause over time. Morbidly concerned with what she knows or thinks she knows about that day in Dallas, Lynette has been emotionally unavailable to her daughter, and she evidently hasn't helped Tom to mature into a well-adjusted man. Stephanie compulsively goads Tom and he snipes at her -- also at his wife and, presumably, his two daughters, who are kept out of sight in the house. Within seconds of the four relatives joining up, they're shouting at one another. Declared truces remain uneasy and the New Jersey air is so dense with acrimony that, forgetting the yet-to-be-cut birthday cake, Tom and Marie grab the kids and scram.

On a larger scale, Reddin undoubtedly intends to posit the debilitating effects that the Kennedy assassination(s) had not just on this family but on the American family. (His earlier play Brutality of Fact deals with similar themes in a different manner and far more successfully.) The divided mother and children of Frame 312 are the result, Reddin seems to be declaring, of the nationwide familial and societal fragmentation that was brought into being when John Kennedy was murdered. In that context, the Zapruder fragment becomes another metaphor for unknowability taken as hoped-for conclusive evidence of something meaningful.

Greg Stuhr, Larry Bryggman, and Mandy Siegfried in Frame 312
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
This theory may be all well and good -- like the theory that Lynette appears to believe it true -- but Reddin offers poor dramaturgical proof. For one thing, his characters have no depth. The older Lynette tells her children that their father's death has enabled her to talk about the film she eventually displays, but she doesn't explain why this is so. In fact, she says hardly anything about her marriage to Eddie, nor does the young Lynette give particulars about him other than his being nice. Moreover, there isn't a lot to be said for the young Lynette or why -- since she's shown to be something of a simperer -- a Time-Life editor would declare that she's the only trustworthy employee he knows. (Is Reddin implying something we should know about Henry Luce's staff at the time of the Kennedy assassination?)

Stephanie and Tom, not to mention the tailored but personality-free Marie, aren't much to shake a stick at, either. Stephanie is a question mark and Tom is even less substantial; his sole action is to importune his mom for money and fly off the handle at his wife. The young Lynette evidences little spunk; a chum of hers from the old days, Margie, and Mr. Graham are merely factotums serving the undernourished narrative. Another of the Frame 312's plot-devices-posing-as-characters is a ballistics expert, who, according to Graham, is killed in a car accident that's suspicious enough to conjure thoughts of The Parallax View. Those thoughts are then allowed to hang untended in the air like so many of the play's tendentious developments.

Faced with the script's deficiencies, director Karen Kohlhaas and the cast have no wriggle room to overcome them and are left to look deficient. Mary Beth Peil, thin and wan in costume designer Mimi O'Donnell's country casuals, furrows her brow when speaking and poses (in Robert Perry's half-light) with pensive expressions when recalling young Lynette's unwanted adventures. Indeed, she does so much frowning that it wouldn't be surprising if she goes home after the show and applies Frownies and Wrinklies to her face.

Mandy Siegfried, who strongly resembles Peil (congrats to casting director Bernard Telsey) and also wears a headband to hold back her blonde hair, goes in more for a puzzled look rather than a frown -- "Why me," she continuously seems to be asking. Larry Bryggman, who played the mentally unsure father in Proof, is put to less impressive use here. Greg Stuhr, as Tom and a couple other characters, and Maggie Kiley, who also has multiple roles, strike single notes throughout, but Elizabeth Hanly Rice gives Stephanie the kind of believability that's missing elsewhere.

In Frame 312, Keith Reddin suggests that the Kennedy assassination remains unresolved. Few people, including those who believe that Oswald acted alone, would argue the point. But Reddin also intimates that the time has come to move on. That ambivalence is interesting and calls for better consideration than it is given in the unsturdily constructed Frame 312.

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