For plenty of millennials, the mention of Clarence Darrow will be met with puzzled expression. It’s a vaguely familiar name that rings some distant bell, but its meaning has mostly faded from our collective memory.
Fortunately for anyone in need of a reminder, the famous, rabble-rousing attorney has come screaming back to life in the Subversive Theatre Collective’s Manny Fried Playhouse in an extraordinary one-man show about Darrow’s life and work performed by James Ivey.
The production, directed by Tom Loughlin, provides a breathless tour through Darrow’s life and landmark accomplishments. It ranges from Darrow’s stunning performances, perhaps the most notable of which is his widely re-enacted defense during the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, to his troubled relationships with the unions whose members he worked tirelessly to defend.
Along the way, we’re treated to some of the more riveting courtroom oration ever spoken.
In his defense of Eugene Debs during the Pullman Strike of 1894, for instance, he said: “I don’t believe in socialism, but I do believe that the government’s ownership of railroads is better for the people than railroad ownership of government.” In his unwavering opposition to the death penalty, he said: “I never hesitated to defend a man accused of murder, if only to prevent a second murder, by the state.” And his questioning of William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes trial – certainly the funniest and most effective legal argument I’ve ever heard – gets a phenomenal re-enactment here.
Ivey gives a charming and sensitive interpretation of the irascible lawyer, who also appeared in a Subversive production of “Inherit the Wind” two years ago with the ideal Gary Darling in the role. From the moment Ivey ambles on stage and languidly checks his watch, we’re watching someone who is comfortable in his character’s skin. His delivery has an understated quality you might not associate with someone as cantankerous and unabashed as Darrow, but Ivey makes it work and adds plenty of appealing little quirks to keep us engaged.
Loughlin’s direction keeps things swimming along at a pace that feels just right, and it’s clear Ivey’s stage movements were precisely choreographed to give audiences a genuine connection through Ivey to the man he portrays.
Loughlin and Ivey have the help of David W. Rintels’ fine script, which contains just the right balance of personal information and professional drama and knows how much legal jargon is just enough.
After watching Darrow talk his way elegantly through the annals of American justice, you’re left with a deep appreciation for the modern America he helped to create and a sickening sense that the rights he fought for – fair wages, the eight-hour workday, punishment for corporate violations, workers’ rights – are once again under assault from new enemies in places like Wisconsin and Missouri.
The play also makes clear how much our modern courtroom dramas owe to Darrow’s language. You can find the same turns of phrase, the same no-nonsense attitude and attempts at the same clear-eyed reasoning on television series like “Law & Order” and any number of contemporary courtroom films.
This show is right in Subversive’s sweet spot. The late labor leader Manny Fried, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday March 1 and after whom the theater is named, would have loved it. But though we lament his absence, it’s shows like this that demonstrate the spirit of great men like Darrow and Fried lives on.
3 and 1/2 stars
What: “Clarence Darrow”
When: Through March 30
Where: Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave.
Tickets: $15 to $20
Info: 408-0499 or www.subversivetheatre.org