The Knights of Mary Phagan

Based on the all-too-true incident, The Knights of Mary Phagan outlines, in courtroom drama style, the trial of Jewish manufacturer Leo Frank for the murder-rape of 13 year old Mary Phagan in Atlanta, Georgia in 1913. the Knights, of course are Knights of the Ku Klux Flan, who eventually took Frank’s punishment into their own hands.

In a solidly realized staging, the only problem with Mary Pagan is the script, which was written by an attorney named Jesse Waldinger who seemed to think that the trial process itself made drama. The play is too long by about half an hour, the testimony realistic but too repetitious for theatrical effect, and the strongest dramatic points are frequently lost in the slowly moving script. The most theatrically interesting hint occurs at the very beginning and is revived at the end. Aged Alonzo Mann (King Stuart) speaks before the Jewish Anti-Defamation League in 1982, mentioning that he saw something connected with the crime at the time it happened, but never told anyone. In the final moment of the play, he admits that he saw the actual murderer carrying the body. This gimmick, simplistic and amateurish in this use, should have been woven like a silver thread, not part of the trial itself, but through it’s playing, like an ominous cloud hovering over a Greek tragedy. Stuart is excellent as Mann, as is Patrick Murphy as the young Mann, but their effect should darken the whole evening.

Under Scott Mlodzinski’s tight, anxious, and thorough direction, the very large cast accounts itself well. Those viewers who were not raised in this environment might think some of the characterizations are over-sized and cartoonish, but they are very real and honest, and true to their native soil. The accents, without an exception, are right on target, which is unusual for actors not from the lower side of the South, and the attitudes are accurate in every instance.

From small roles to large, the quality of this company’s work is exceptional. There are some notable standouts, among them Michael Thauer’s Leo Frank, withdrawn, anxious and hard-nosed; particularly Charles Hoyes as angry, frustrated defense attorney Luther Rosser and Dick DeCoit as the opportunistic prosecutor Hugh Dorsey; Bill LaMond’s subtle bias as Judge Roan; and Tegan Summer as Jim Conley, the black man whose testimony destroys Frank and cloaks his own guilt.

But these are only highlights in a large, solid cast, in the second presentation of this new company, which gives a hint that they should be watched in the future. They really have something going for them and hopefully their choice of material will grow with their reputation.

By T. H. McCulloh