All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The Leo Frank case serves as such a total and blatant example of prejudice, lack of justice, political posturing, and mob rule that it resonates powerfully today, a full century after it dominated Georgia, and even national, headlines.
Frank, who came to Atlanta, his wife’s hometown, from Brooklyn in 1909 to manage a pencil factory owned by his wife’s uncle, was accused of the grisly murder of a 13-year-old employee, Mary Phagan, on a day the factory was closed for Confederate Memorial Day, April 26, 1913, and Phagan came to the unusually empty building to collect $1.20 she was owed in wages.
Except for Frank and Phagan being together in a mostly deserted place, no concrete evidence linked the manager to the crime. His shyness, fastidiousness, lack of humor, marital status, undivided attention to business, and religious piety argued against him noticing or having a conversation with Phagan, let alone harming her.
The Atlanta prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, didn’t see Frank for who he was in the wider spectrum of his life. Or he turned a convenient blind eye to the manager’s serious, practical character. Spurred to solve and get a conviction in the Phagan murder, he seized on circumstantial evidence, orchestrated witnesses, was lazy about securing a confession from an obvious suspect, and railroaded Frank to prison to await execution by hanging.
Dorsey’s ambition and fecklessness weren’t all that came into play. Leo Frank was an oddity in Atlanta, a Jewish man in a South still reeling from the Civil War and suspicious of outsiders, Frank’s Jewishness compounding his Northern roots and ways, even though Frank was born in Texas.
Between Frank being a fish out of water, never comfortable in the South and only there to build enough savings for him and his wife to live comfortably, and the uproar about Mary Phagan’s killing, he was a villain in many eyes, someone who represented all that came after Gethsemane and Appomattox to decay the South and corrupt its traditions. Manners may have dictated that people be superficially cordial to Frank, but behind their Southern façade, few were inclined to be friendly or welcoming to him.
Georgians were on Dorsey’s side, elated to know a Northern Jew had an appointment with the hangman’s rope. Public satisfaction with the outcome of Frank’s trial was rife, and his being put to death would be as much an occasion of celebration as his conviction or the Memorial Day on which he allegedly defiled and murdered Mary Phagan.
The Frank case has provided material for movies, television shows, and documentaries, but the finest and most moving rendition is Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s sweepingly human 1999 musical, “Parade,” given a splendid, creative, effective, and affecting showing at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre through Sunday, November 3.
Uhry and Brown beautifully weave all aspects of Frank’s story into an epic musical that gives sharp, enlightening voice to all the themes and issues inherent in it. Uhry’s book sets a high and revealing narrative tone while Brown’s arias for individual characters, and anthems for both the South and for the Franks, Leo and his wife, Lucille, give “Parade” the power to rivet.
Arden director Terrence J. Nolen and his gifted cast deftly mine the entire bounty Uhry and Brown provide them. Nolen’s “Parade” evokes the South from its disarming charm to its roiling anger and prejudice while focusing on the individuals involved in the Frank case and giving generous attention to Leo and Lucille, played with commitment, dignity, and passion by Ben Dibble and Jennie Eisenhower.
Author, composer, director, and cast balance the emotional nature of “Parade” with the wealth of information it imparts. Those emotions, laudable or despicable, are palpable and honest to the people who express them. The information, delivered cleverly in Brown’s songs, always moves the story forward while never becoming overstated or cumbersome. Nolen enhances Uhry’s script and Brown’s score by using a scenic effect conceived by him and designer Jorge Cousineau, a large screen on which the action on or behind the stage is projected in sepia tones via closed-circuit television cameras . The images underscore the part of the story that is being told at any given moment while never distracting from the sequence being played on stage. The projections, some of which are set shots prepared in advance, add texture and commentary that give the piece more immediacy and a greater sense of reality. “Parade” does not need help in conveying its story. All six productions I’ve seen of it, from the original Broadway mounting to this staging at the Arden, have done an admirable job in conveying both the heart and inhumanity within the piece, but Cousineau’s contribution puts the Arden production at the head of the pack as being the most complete and most deeply affecting.
The screen comes into play as “Parade” unfolds to the beat of a muffled drum roll. Michael Philip O’Brien, as a young Civil War soldier about to leave for battle, poses with his gun drawn, as for a daguerreotype that is captured in sepia as O’Brien sweetly gives lovely voice to the show’s opening and recurring anthem, “The Old Red Hills of Home.” As the number builds, and onstage action moves from 1862 to 1913, you get an idea of how fine and thoughtful a production the Arden’s “Parade” is going to be. The pacing, the care, and attention to detail are the clues, and Nolen and company never disappoint.
“Parade” demands that several stories in several settings blend into a whole. Uhry and Brown give their work a strong structure, but again Nolen adds to their genius by creating a believable mise en scene, a total, discernible atmosphere in which the Frank story takes place. The audience has a strong sense of1913 Atlanta beyond the words and music Uhry and Brown provide. Thom Weaver’s lighting design is particularly helpful in knitting settings and giving sharp indication to the time of day or to the mood of a scene.
Nolen lets the plot happen. Whether a character is conniving, or a turn of events is surprising, he presents it naturally, never pushing or emphasizing. This too makes the action in “Parade” all the more real and emotionally gratifying. All scenes speak for themselves, flowing smoothly and building to a dramatic head that keeps the production interesting and compelling.
Clarity and audience involvement are especially important because “Parade” touches on so many subjects, some of which are as prevalent in the early 21st century as they were in the early 20th.
Leo Frank is a victim of both cultural difference and a rush to make a wary and angry public secure by quickly incarcerating someone, even if the actual murderer has not been found.
Lucille Frank talks about being comfortable as a Jew in the South. The Jewish community is tight-knit and unconcerned about only being tolerated. Toleration is fine because it’s better than violence or overt anti-Semitism.
Dorsey’s accusation of Leo unleashes the open expression of anti-Semitism. Many of “Parade’s” passages make it clear people are not happy about having a Jew in their midst and quite content at seeing that Jew live up to their prejudicial expectations by brutally murdering a Georgia peach. Repercussions from the Leo Frank conviction were so profound, they caused more than half of Atlanta’s Jewish population, and many other Jews in the South, to relocate to less volatile areas. They also prompted the founding of the Anti-Defamation League.
To “Parade’s” and Nolen’s credit, anti-Semitism pervades the musical without dominating it. Its presence informs many scenes, whether anti-Jewish sentiments are spoken outright or implied between the lines, but other story threads, including the Franks’ life following Leo’s sentencing, get their fair share of attention.
These include Hugh Dorsey’s rigging of the Leo Frank trial in way that, combined with anti-Semitism and a will to revenge Mary Phagan, convince a jury to convict.
The testimony we hear in Brown’s nimble courtroom numbers shows how deft and corrupt a hand Dorsey was at staging a trial. Mary’s co-workers, all about her, age, remind one of the children in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” as each eerily repeats the story the first witness tells. Coercion and bullying on Dorsey’s part are equally obvious in other characters’ relation of what happened the day Mary Phagan was murdered. Uhry and Brown shrewdly expose Dorsey and the Atlanta police as officials who would rather have a fast resolution to a crime than catch a criminal. They are content to let Leo Frank serve their purpose and satisfy the public’s need to have someone to blame rather than rid Atlanta of a murderer, who by definition, if Leo Frank is innocent, remains on the loose. How often do we see similar corruptions of justice today? Too often.
Dorsey is not the only politician pleased to have the Phagan murder efficiently solved and off the docket. Georgia’s governor, John Slaton, slicker, more cultivated, and more charming than Dorsey, enjoys the fact justice has been served. Nonetheless, Slaton wants things done fairly, and upon learning of inconsistencies and irregularities in the Frank trial, agrees to reopen the case.
The person who brings Slaton the evidence that persuades him to take the unpopular stance of commuting Leo’s sentence is Lucille Frank, who though content to be a housewife and hostess when we first meet her, becomes a firebrand on her husband’s behalf. Leo, meanwhile, also changes. He is cranky and justifiably indignant when he is arrested and downhearted at his conviction, but jail and the unhurried time it provides soften him in a way. He learns to go about things in a more cooperative way while using his habit of grinding away at tasks to scour Georgia law texts and write a tract defending himself. The Franks cement their relationship in their quest to exonerate Leo, and both “Parade” and the Arden production are shrewd in making the audience admire the Franks as individuals and not just as victims of injustice. A picnic scene at a Georgia prison camp particularly reinforces the warmth and sympathy the Franks have engendered amidst the hoopla of Dorsey’s chicanery, Slaton’s examination, and Atlanta’s joy at knowing Frank is heading to the gallows.
Nolen and his actors neatly cover all of this ground in a production that becomes richer and more involving by the second. The Arden production of “Parade” is a great achievement and deserves to play to full houses.
Ben Dibble and Jennie Eisenhower are marvelous in their portrayals of the Franks. I’ll extol their virtues in a short while because at least two of the supporting players added so mightily to the force and success of the Arden production, I want to heap praise on them first.
Jeff Coon has grown before our eyes. I remember charting his breakthroughs, first in singing when his voice became full and true and lived up to the potential heard in that instrument from Coon’s first performance, then in acting with a delicate performance that took place on the Walnut’s 3rd floor studio more than a decade ago. Since then, he has been a stalwart lead player and reliable character actor in many a production, mostly at the Walnut or Arden. In “Parade,” Coon provides galvanizing energy to his part of a bored newspaper reporter rejuvenated by the Frank case. When he roars, “Big News in Atlanta” — the song is called only “Big News” — he dominates the Arden stages and treats the audience to a combination of relief and sarcasm that makes the number pay beyond the information it imparts. As a prison guard, Coon is just as authentic and, therefore, becomes an integral part of a scene in which his character may have been barely noticed. When he walks a chain gang, the glow Coon had as the reporter and the guard disappear into ashen drudgery. Sitting on the side, lending his guiding voice to the chorus, he is as helpful and content as when he is center stage. One actor. Four parts. Four distinct and precise performances. One perfect contribution to a great production.
As far as I know, I’ve only seen Derrick Cobey as one of the chorus that comments on the action in the Arden’s “A Little Night Music” last spring. Cobey is so good in “Parade,” he wrung applause from a relatively quiet audience after he delivered a courtroom aria, “That’s What He Said,” that dripped with villainy and his character’s love of it.
Like Coon, Cobey is a master of creating different modes for different characters. Playing one character who was at the pencil factory the day Mary Phagan was killed, he is all polite submission and looks mousy and respectable. Two ticks later, playing the man whose testimony most damns Leo Frank, he is all bravura, swagger, and con man’s charm. Launching into his song, Cobey creates and builds excitement. The irony of being chilled by his words and thrilled by his performance brought “Parade” to a new level. Whenever he appears, and in whatever guise, Cobey adds an extra charge of life in “Parade.” The lights get brighter and the atmosphere more intense when he is onstage. It’s wonderful to see an actor in such command that he is able to make a great theater experience even greater.
On the more subtle side, Sarah Gliko is all intelligence, sophistication, and charm as Sally Slaton, the wife of the governor who accedes to Lucille Frank’s pleas to examine the trial that sentenced her husband to ignoble death. The simple, assured ease with which Gliko played her part was just right for the occasion.
Likeable Ben Dibble, he whose awkward features somehow win you at first sight, completely and successfully masks his attractive amiability when we first meet Leo. Rather, Dibble clings to Leo’s rigidity, his regular habits and his need for regular meals. Leo is sour and single-minded like many businesspeople. He loves his wife, but he thinks she is a bit silly and is resistant to the amenities and more leisurely and elegant style of living with which Lucille tries to leaven his life and their lives. At the office, Leo is all heads-down work. Determined, unyielding moiling and toiling over ledger books is his lot, and he’s suited to it. In Dibble’s performance, you don’t see many ways Leo finds joy or indicates that he thinks joy is important.
Leo is astounded by the turn in his fate, and Dibble deftly displays his simultaneous confusion and haughtiness. His face, magnified by the sepia screen at the time of his conviction, and posture show a closed man who is both appalled and crestfallen by the events to which he is so central. Dibble clearly shows Leo’s changes in attitude and even his resignation at being in jail. Two of his most telling scenes are one in which he acknowledges his gratitude to Lucille and one in which he comes face-to-face with his fate. Dibble allows us to see Leo’s adjustments, and they are not only the crux of “Parade” but a play of their own.
The humor and mild Southern manner with which Jennie Eisenhower endows Lucille at the beginning of “Parade” remain a part of her character even as care and research and hard campaigning reveal the competent lion of a woman beneath her cultivated façade. Lucille is a steel magnolia whose love and resolve are evident in Eisenhower’s gracious and stolid performance. Anxious as Lucille is for Governor Slaton to review Leo’s case, she is all poise and patience as she waits to encounter him in a way she has had to contrive. Those same traits endear Lucille to people, especially those Leo often repels. Her polite manners earn Lucille more than temperament or insistence would, and Eisenhower plays this mixture of gentility and wisdom in a natural manner that earns admiration for both the character and the actress.
Tony Lawton has appropriate bluster and the look of a liar in his eye as he plays Hugh Dorsey. Scott Greer first exudes breeding, then shows statesmanship and the will to do right as John Slaton. Like Coon, Greer steps into other parts seamlessly and with his usual aplomb. Robert Hager conveys the anger and hate of his fellow Atlantans as a young man who woos Mary Phagan then looks to avenge her death. Dennis Holland brings dignity to three parts he plays and is particularly effective in a scene when he is bargaining with Leo. Kenita R. Miller shows range as the Franks’ maid.
Along with his projections, Jorge Cousineau’s set uses “Parade’s” costumes on pulleys as a backdrop. This construction seems utilitarian and benign until one scene in which costumes are lowered front and center, and we see they are Ku Klux Klan uniforms about to make their appearance on the old red hills of home. Another quiet but unsettling effect in a production intelligently loaded with them.
“Parade” runs through Sunday, November 3 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Sundays, Oct. 13 and Nov. 3, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $48 to $36 and can be ordered by calling 215-922-1122 or visiting www.ardentheatre.org.