Never the Sinner

Victory Gardens brings down the gavel on an infamous murder.

Jordan Brodess and Japhet Balaban star in John Logan's Never the Sinner, directed by Gary Griffin, at Victory Gardens Theater.
Jordan Brodess plays Loeb, and Japhet Balaban plays Leopold in John Logan's Never the Sinner, directed by Gary Griffin, at Victory Gardens Theater.
(© Michael Courier)

The theater that hosted the 1985 world premiere of John Logan's Never the Sinner is long gone. But while Stormfield Theatre is a memory, Logan's courtroom drama/psychological thriller retains the power to send shivers down your spine. More than 90 years after Leopold and Loeb's 1924 thrill killing, the lurid legendary crime still shocks.

The Victory Gardens production directed by Gary Griffin doesn't contain a drop of blood, despite the sensationally gruesome headlines that splashed across the country after 14-year-old Bobby Franks was murdered. Never the Sinner doesn't need gore to generate shock or scares. Logan's spare dialogue does the job instead, depicting two real-world monsters disguised by good manners and undeniable charisma.

Leopold (Japhet Balaban) and Loeb (Jordan Brodess) were sons of privilege, students at the University of Chicago who came from wealthy families. Logan's dialogue shows their privilege morphing from something that's merely obnoxious into something that's horrifyingly soulless: Leopold, 19, and Loeb, 18, believe that they are Übermenschen – Nietzschean supermen above the petty rules and morality that govern everyone else. Killing someone, they reason, would be just like swatting a fly.

The crime plays out in flashbacks. The script toggles between the crime and its aftermath, when famed attorney Clarence Darrow (Keith Kupferer) came to Leopold and Loeb's defense against prosecuting attorney Robert Crowe (Derek Hasenstab). The rest of the seven-person ensemble (Celeste M. Cooper, Bill Bannon, Demetrios Troy) play various onlookers, jury members, and witnesses.

Griffin shapes the drama with an understated edge. Leopold and Loeb discuss murder with academic detachment, the way others might discuss a problematic mathematic equation. As Loeb, Brodess wears his superiority with a casual, ever-present smugness that's enraging. He's the nightmare version of a familiar type: a young, rich, white master of the universe raised to believe that his innate superiority exempts him from the cares of mere mortals. Balaban's shy, socially awkward Leopold worships Loeb, is deeply in love with him, and is desperate for his approval. Apart, Leopod and Loeb might have been simply arrogant. Together, they're toxic.

Kupferer's Darrow provides the piece's moral center, and his courtroom orations resonate with the power of common human decency. Slightly rumpled and unassuming, Kupferer's Darrow is bulwark of compassion, the very opposite of the men he's charged with saving from the electric chair. When he gets to the core of his argument – that he hates the sin, but never the sinner – the wisdom of it embeds itself in your memory. As prosecuting attorney Crowe, Hasenstab is also in top form, capturing the unmitigated outrage and horror of a nation hungry for vengeance.

Scenic designer Kurtis Boetcher's minimalist, multilevel set gives the production an eerie grace. Characters ascend and descend on an upstage platform with a majesty that emphasizes the importance of the courtroom proceedings and the lofty ideals Darrow articulates. Janice Pytel's subtle costumes are period perfect and lighting designer Keith Parham unexpected use of the houselights (bringing them up during key courtroom arguments) turns the audience into the jury, passing judgement on Leopold and Loeb.

There have been dozens of "crimes of the century" since 1924. But Leopold and Loeb's heinous murder still stands as an act of unfathomable depravity. Logan forces his audience to contemplate whether they'd respond to such cruelty with vengeance or compassion. You probably won't find any certain answer to that question within Never the Sinner. But its exploration will be fascinating.

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Never the Sinner

Closed: December 6, 2015