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'Never the Sinner' drama of famous 1924 murder

A play that could spark communitywide discussions about the death penalty opens at the Duluth Playhouse Friday.

John Logan's "Never the Sinner" is an unforgettable drama that tells the true story of two teen-aged boys, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who killed 14-year-old Bobby Franks in cold blood in 1924.

The boys came from wealthy families and were star scholars at school, but, together, they plotted and then murdered an innocent young boy just to show the world that they could get away with the perfect crime.

At the time, the media sensationalized the trial, and it soon became known as the trial of the century, not only because of the bizarre circumstances of the murder, but also because of the defense lawyer hired by the boys' wealthy parents to defend them -- Clarence Darrow.

"Clarence Darrow used this whole trial to make a statement against capital punishment," said Colleen Daugherty, who directs the show. "Some people say he was ahead of his time in that way."

"Never the Sinner" was written in the 1980s and was first produced in Chicago in 1992.

The play is about teens killing teens, a poignant and tragic reality that is being dealt with today, Daugherty said, which is one of the reasons she decided to direct the play for the Duluth Playhouse this season.

"The relationship between Leopold and Loeb reminded me of the Columbine kids," she said. "Those two boys alone, they could not have done the murder, but together, it made it possible for them to pull off this horrific crime."

The media also has a role to play in this trial, as well, she said. "The play clearly shows how the media makes heroes of these criminals and circuses in the courtroom," she said. It also asks almost unanswerable questions: Who is at fault -- society or sinner? Where is justice? What is just punishment?

Darrow, who was a celebrity in his own right, saw the case as an opportunity to strike a blow against the death penalty. He saw his task as saving the two boys from hanging -- and he did. Instead of the gallows, Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to life in prison plus 99 years. Loeb was murdered in prison at age 32. Leopold was released on parole in 1958 after serving 33 years.

Preparing "Never the Sinner" has been an extraordinary experience for the actors.

"I read the script last September and thought it was awesome," said Dan Averitt, who plays Nathan "Babe" Leopold. "As an actor, I saw that this had really good material. It's very emotional. And the script throws all these different questions for the audience to interpret -- capital punishment, whether it's right or wrong ... and the dynamic between Leopold and Loeb is just fascinating."

"The script is really stunning," said Matt Shubitz, who plays Richard Loeb. "That's what drew me in the first place."

The storyline and what happens is also compelling, Shubitz said. "Those two together made it possible for the unthinkable to happen."

"It's intense," said Kevin Walsh, who is the president of the Playhouse Board and Robert Crow, the prosecuting attorney. "I think it's sort of in-your-face theater. I'm really curious how the community responds to this."

Dean Hagen, 75, who plays Clarence Darrow after about a 10-year hiatus from the Playhouse stage, said he was drawn to audition for the part because he's a distant relative of the famous lawyer. "My great-great-great-grandfather was a brother to Clarence Darrow's grandfather," he said.

He also said he has especially enjoyed watching the younger actors develop their parts. "The most interesting thing has been watching the six other people in the play developing their characters," he said.

Verne Wagner, Jessica Poskozin and Marcus Jordan play the reporters.

The play is compelling and should stimulate discussion and thoughts about capital punishment and teen-aged killings, they said.

In fact, the Playhouse will stage a special performance for high school students on Tuesday, March 6. Following the play, students will be able to discuss their reactions to the issues brought out in the drama with a panel composed of Judge Carol Person, Fred Friedman, chief public defender for northeastern Minnesota, John DeSanto, chief prosecutor, St. Louis County Attorney's Office and Mark Stodghill of the Duluth News Tribune.

"The panel afterward will be fascinating, especially given that it's an opportunity for teen-agers and high school students to see the performance and then to discuss the morality issues," Shubitz said.

The issues are still very real for adults, too, Daugherty said. "Even though in 1924 they called this the trial of the century, we're still dealing very much with these issues today," Daugherty said. "And we still don't have the answers."

NEWS TO USE

"Never the Sinner" will be performed at the Duluth Playhouse March 2-4 and March 7-11. Show times are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays.Tickets are $10 adults, $9 seniors and students. For reservations, call

733-7555.

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