Backstage West
The Knights Of Mary Phagan

In an era in which sensationalistic trial-by-media is the rule, the true story of the 1913 Georgia murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan and the subsequent railroading of innocent Jewish businessman Leo Frank for the crime has a built-in dramatic punch. Jesse Waldinger’s new play, recounting this often-dramatized tale, is gripping throughout, yet one wishes it ventured further beyond generic courtroom theatrics in exploring the sociological significance of this complex web of bureaucratic manipulation and public hysteria. The scandalous events that occurred, culminating in Frank’s lynch-mob murder, led to the formation of the Anti-Defamation League and a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. Still, elevating the production to don’t-miss status is a spellbinding ensemble, holding our rapt attention under the masterful guidance of director Scott Mlodzinski.

What makes this tragedy so ironic is that it was the lies, under oath, of a black man, Jim Conley (Tegan Summer), that sealed Frank’s conviction. Conley was the rapist/murderer, who jumped on the anti-Semitic bandwagon to save his own skin. Bloodthirsty citizens and prosecutors used one beleaguered minority as a weapon against another. It took 70 years for the truth to come out, when a frightened shop assistant (played in 1983 by King Stuart and 1913 by Evan Lee Dahl) finally admitted to witnessing the crime. As the doomed Frank, Michael Tower masterfully depicts the man’s dignified, humble facade and the torrent of fear, outrage, and humiliation seething underneath. Chuck Hoyes, with an Ed Asner toughness, excels as the tenacious defense attorney Rosser, waging formidable battles against the smarmy prosecutor Dorsey (Dick DeCoit, likewise superb). Among other standouts are Simon Sorrells as a bigoted punk, Cupid Hayes as a domestic servant duped into signing a false statement, Summer as the dangerous scumbag Conley, and Stephen Reynolds as the exasperated judge.

Design credits are sublime, led by Danny Cistone’s wonderfully atmospheric and fluid sets. Those unfamiliar with this web of evil events will probably glean the most from this production, as it’s more a well-rendered retelling than a revelation. Yet some lessons from our history bear periodic reminders, and this is an exemplary rendition.

By Les Spindle