Story: In 1924 two brilliant young students from Chicago met at the University of Chicago and became fast friends. Nathan Leopold was not yet 20 but already had completed an undergraduate degree and was planning to enroll at Harvard Law School. Richard Loeb had been the University of Michigan’s youngest graduate at age 17 and was still a teenager when he met Leopold.

The two young men shared a physical attraction to each other as well as a fascination with crime. Loeb was obsessed with philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the German’s concept of ubermenschen (supermen), that some individuals with superior intellects enabled them to rise above the laws and rules observed by “average” people.

Loeb proposed that the two commit a random murder simply for the thrill of it and the excitement of duping the police. After months of planning they kidnapped a boy named Bobby Franks and murdered him, burying his body in a place they considered too obscure to find and then contacting Franks’ family with a phony ransom demand.

Leopold and Loeb eventually were caught, though, and put on trial for murder. Famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow represented the pair and decided to have them plead guilty so that he could direct his energies to the sentencing hearing held by the judge. The “crime of the century” ended with the killers being condemned to life imprisonment plus 99 years, thus escaping the death penalty in a ground-breaking decision.

Highlights: John Logan’s comprehensive and absorbing drama is being given a taut, compelling interpretation by director Rick Dildine and a top-notch cast in the current production at New Jewish Theatre, one that will linger with an audience long after leaving the theater.

Other Info: Never the Sinner was Logan’s first play, written in 1985 at age 24. He’s gone on to win a Tony Award for Red as well as Oscar and Emmy nominations for The Aviator and Gladiator, among others. He also penned the drama Hauptmann about the kidnapping and murder of the infant son of Charles Lindbergh and his wife.

So, Logan has a penchant for the dark and macabre as well as an eye for brilliance and superiority, all traits that merge in this study of two wealthy and intelligent young men who, according to a psychiatrist at their hearing, were incapable of committing the heinous offense of murder on their own but became a deadly duo when combined.

Dildine coaxes magnetic performances out of Pete Winfrey as Loeb and Jack Zanger as Leopold. Winfrey especially has Loeb come across as a seriously mis-wired sociopath, shockingly comparing the murder of Franks to the killing of a bug for scientific study. At other times, Winfrey’s Loeb becomes unhinged by the fact that his mother not once sees him at the trial nor visits him in jail.

Zanger portays Leopold as the more studious and apprehensive of the pair but also a teen fascinated with the allure of the roguish Leopold. The latter is described by the vapid tabloid reporters of the day as causing more than one female heart to flutter. Both performers cut dashing figures in the fancy suits costumed by Michele Friedman Siler, who furnishes more utilitarian garb for the various reporters and a crumpled look for Darrow.

The drama unfolds on a fascinating set designed by Peter and Margery Spack that is populated with sundry paintings of birds, especially ones of prey, alluding to Leopold’s budding national reputation as an ornithological expert as well as the deadly instincts of the defendants. The paintings rise high above the wooden floor where the trial itself occurs, with players sitting on chairs off to the sides when not involved directly in dialogue.

Maureen Berry lights everything as through a prism of investigation, alternating the set between shards of light and darkness, with the spotlight on characters in the trial. Somehow, Margery Spack’s props seem to include newspapers with actual headlines addressing the “crime of the century.” Michael Perkins adds the sober sound design.

Most impressive is John Flack as the renowned Darrow. Intentionally stooped to indicate Darrow’s advancing age as well as his world weariness, Flack’s pained expressions carry the weight of the sage’s wisdom and Darrow’s exhaustive and ingenious approach to representing his reprehensible clients. He’s particularly impressive as Darrow grapples to understand any possible motives.

Eric Dean White plays the overly sensitive prosecuting attorney Robert Crowe, who chafes at the notoriety that follows his older adversary Darrow. Maggie Conroy, Will Bonfiglio and John Reidy are in fine form as sundry scribes breathlessly writing down the words of these cold-blooded killers-turned-celebrities, not much different from today’s reality TV. Reidy also has an amusing turn as a tongue-tied witness who obviously parrots testimony that’s been spoon-fed to him until Darrow trips him up.

Dildine’s program notes refer to Never the Sinner as “a love story.” In a bizarre, twisted way it is exactly that. Most often, though, it’s a troubling and fascinating tale about two talented youngsters who threw away their freedom when they joined together to follow their worst impulses to tragic ends.

Play: Never the Sinner

Company: New Jewish Theatre

Venue: Wool Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive

Dates: March 22, 23, 25, 26, 29, 30, April 1, 2

Tickets: $39.50-$43.50; contact 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Eric Woolsey

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