Playwright: John Logan
At: Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington
Phone: (312) 409-8463; 18
Runs through: March 16
Other 'crimes of the century' have since overshadowed the kidnapping of American hero and aviator Charles Lindbergh's infant son and the subsequent finding of the child's battered body in a ditch, but the media circus and the over-zealousness of the trial still resonate as a supreme tale of justice gone wrong.
Timeline Theatre's revival of playwright John Logan's drama places the trial of German immigrant Bruno Richard Hauptmann center stage (both literally and figuratively). Know from the start that Logan's script, while weighted on the side of Hauptmann's innocence, offers no easy, or complete, answers to the enigma of the crime and its perpetrator that have rankled and fascinated for decades. Logan, a playwright who is also known for such screenplays as Gladiator and Any Given Sunday, leaves the question of Hauptmann's innocence ambiguous.
The play, which had its premiere in Chicago in 1986 and has seen subsequent productions at Victory Gardens and the off-Broadway venue, the Cherry Lane Theatre, demonstrates some crisp and economical directing by Nick Bowling. Bowling keeps the action moving swiftly, and draws us into the Hauptmann's trail with the kind of intimacy that's completely engrossing. Heather Graff and Richard Peterson designed the set and lighting and have capitalized on the smallish space of Timeline's theater space, with a central raised platform (upon which Hauptmann tells his story, both based on historical fact and as it might have been) surrounded by small tableaux of lawyers, the Lindbergh's, Hauptmann's wife, Anna, and others. A large American flag backs the set, which is a telling detail because it allows the flawed American judicial system to become a large silent presence.
PJ Powers plays the titular role, and carries most of the weight of the production on very capable thespian shoulders. Cleverly, Powers doesn't create a monster, nor does he create a man for whom we can immediately ferret out innocence. His Hauptmann contains astonishing depth; his mannerisms and slight grin reveal a man who may or may not be telling more than he knows. Logan's decision to leave Hauptmann's culpability open to interpretation is more involving than if he had just come down on one side or another. What Logan, and Hauptmann, does demonstrate is the circus-like atmosphere of the trial and how Hauptmann was undoubtedly railroaded into the electric chair by a public and judicial system hungry for a culprit for a heinous crime.
Hauptmann is a fascinating evening of theater that will leave you thinking about deep issues of not only justice, but also of envy, alienation, and revenge. Timeline has done very satisfying, competent work here … and it's worth seeing.