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Hinckley — New City Stage at The Adrienne

Hinckley -- interior alternative “Hinckley,” Ginger Dayle’s world premiere play at New City StageCompany, is so  complete, so well-structured, and so detailed, it’s difficult to regard it as the first workshop production of a new piece. “Hinckley” impresses with such craft and scope at Philadelphia’s  Adrienne Theatre, it already seems fully formed.

Using a combination of finely-researched documentary passages and imaginative yet informed  conceptions of ravings, hallucinations, and thought processes by would-be  Ronald Reagan assassin, John Warnock Hinckley,  Dayle writes a compelling play that delves into Hinckley’s psyche while intelligently touching on tangential issues such as parenting, gun control, the criminal justice system, and,  most importantly, mental health. We not only see Hinckley as a deluded young man who, in his addled state, believes that killing a President, any President, and acquiring notoriety will earn him the affection of actress Jodie Foster, but as a classic example of the five defining symptoms of schizophrenia, some of which Hinckley was known to have before he was left to wander the world on his own, allegedly to forge a career in pop music, in reality to find and woo Foster.

Dayle presents and actor Sam Sherburne portrays Hinckley as a psychological time bomb that fell through the clinical, and parental, cracks to live his delusions and hatch his plots. Dayle’s play in no way attempts to apologize for Hinckley’ s acts or hypothesize what his life might have been like if he had treatment, but it employs Hinckley’s story to provoke some serious thought about mental health, and the attention it’s given, and about the insanity defense by which a jury acquitted Hinckley on all counts of attempting to murder Reagan, sparing Hinckley prison in favor of hospitalization that could last his lifetime. Hinckley’s story in the foreground, with facts, figures, and expert testimony added to bring perspective to that story, leads to a powerful work of theater that is interesting in the most complimentary way. Not “interesting” as a dodge to say something positive without being non-committal, but interesting because in a neat 80 minutes, Dayle packed in so much salient information, keen insight, and solid, absorbing drama.

Dayle sets her play in Hinckley’s mind from his youth to the present day with most of the concentration on the late ’70s and ’80s. (Hinckley made his assassination attempt on March 30, 1981, ironically 33 years to the date that Dayle’s show closes at the Adrienne.) By doing this, she can include scenes from Hinckley’s childhood, including his reaction at the assassination of John F. Kennedy and go into the years Hinckley is institutionalized, allowing for imagined visits from Foster as her “Silence of the Lambs” character, Clarice Starling, and the chance for the audience to catch up with what Hinckley is doing currently. Although Dayle’s script remains objective, members of the audience may have a reaction to knowing Hinckley is occasionally permitted to go into Williamsburg, Va. and even Washington, D.C. on his own, with only a GPS monitor to track his whereabouts. His excursions may even include trips to the movies.

Dayle so tidily juxtaposes past and present, fact and fantasy, statistics with surmises, and historical or imagined figures with real-life characters Hinckley can see and hear, you learn a lot while being riveted to the profile of one who intended to kill to satisfy a craving he had to attain fame, success, and the hand of Jodie Foster without working for them or having the talent that would make him able to earn them. You see a dabbler, a dilettante, a dreamer, and a drone whose schizophrenia triggers delusions of grandeur accompanied by deep debilitating depressions. When delusion kicks in, envy of people like Mark David Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon, or anger at not having his true worth recognized, or frustration at not being able to get Foster’s attention accompany it.

Dayle is shrewd in how she positions much of what she includes. When Hinckley first hears of Lennon’s killing, he is livid at Chapman. The Beatle are heroes of his. He has posters and pictures celebrating them on the wall of the room Cory Palmer designs for him to inhabit in “Hinckley.” Hinckley curses had expresses hate for Chapman. He seems to waver from seeing red to being distraught until, in a split second, his hate turns to jealousy. Everyone now knows who Chapman is. The name John Lennon may rarely be spoken without someone thinking about Mark David Chapman. Chapman will be eternally remembered, eternally famous. Even Jodie Foster knows who he is. This line of thinking leads Hinckley to deciding he has to kill someone to attract Foster, someone of monumental importance, someone like the President of the United States, who at the time of Lennon’s death and Hinckley’s flight of skewed logic is Jimmy Carter but will at the time he’s ready to act become Ronald Reagan.

You see Hinckley’s disease evolve to the point that he is poised for such a dramatic move.  His obsession with Foster is unquenchable. His yen for fame and adulation is equally forceful. As I said, Hinckley is a time bomb. Dayle and workshop director Amy Feinberg deftly chart this progression. Sam Sherburne plays it with unnerving perfection.

All kinds of material relating to Hinckley are economically included in Dayle’s script. He is visited by Lincoln assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and Kennedy’s killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, each of whom demonstrates his own form of schizophrenia in the context of “Hinckley.” He also sees Jodie Foster as  both Iris, the character from “Taxi Driver” that stirred his obsession, and Clarice from “Silence of the Lambs,” and Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver.” Life chillingly imitates art in a passage in which you think you are seeing Hinckley, as Bickle, interacting in a fantasy with Foster, as Iris, only to discover it is the actual Hinckley with a call girl he hired to enact “Taxi Driver” scenes with him.

Although Ronald Reagan never appears as a character in “Hinckley,” he and Hinckley’s attempt at his life are prominently seen on a big screen that will have various uses during Dayle and Feinberg’s production. John F. Kennedy is a character. He is seen giving stirring excerpts from his inauguration speech. Walter Cronkite also appears, to give the news of Kennedy’s death as he did at 2 p.m. on November 22, 1963 on CBS. Frank Reynolds is similarly shown reporting inaccurate information about Reagan’s shooting and shouting at someone over the telephone before he gathers poise to correct his story. All of this documentary material fits in nicely with the text and tenor of “Hinckley.”

Dayle is skillful about when and how he interpolates Hinckley’s parents. His mother, Jo Ann, but called Jodie, is seen watching television as she irons a shirt and the news of Reagan being shot comes on the air. She is visibly upset, not because she has any inkling her son is involved in the event, but because Reagan has just begun his term, and the shooting of a President is anathema to most Americans. Jo Ann Hinckley is easy on John, who takes much more effort and patience to raise than her older two children. Hinckley’s father, also John, is less tolerant and critical of his wife’s lenience with their wayward son. Meghan Cary and Russ Widdall do a remarkable job playing the Hinckleys and all of the peripheral characters who populate the younger Hinckley’s thoughts.

You can see the parents take heart when John sends letters to them in Colorado of how well he’s doing in California and how he met a girl, an actress (not Jodie Foster) with whom matters are becoming serious. You can also see how they rally to the cause of mental health following their son’s trial. The closest Dayle comes to editorializing or making it look as if “Hinckley” had a singular moral, comes as the Hinckleys plead for more attention to mental health and what happens to patients once they are institutionalized.

One of Cary’s parts is a university researcher, I believe from Penn, who has done a careful, comprehensive study of schizophrenia and dispels the idea the disease involves a split personality and goes on to explain all it does entail clinically. To Dayle’s credit, this fascinating psychology lecture fits as an integral and unobtrusive part of her play.

You can tell by now how thorough Dayle was in telling Hinckley’s story and keeping it logical and credible from his point of view. Dayle is to be congratulated and admired for her meticulous scholarship and even more for her ability to sculpt all of the information she derived and points she wanted to make into this taut, involving play.

Sam Sherburne is beyond remarkable as Hinckley. He can go easily from being an unassuming and mildly bashful young man who seems no different from thousands of other boys moving awkwardly from adolescence to a more mature teen state then adulthood to being a powderkeg of emotion and rage.

Sherburne deftly takes you through the many stages that are John Warnock Hinckley. In one stupendous feat of writing and acting, he plays how Hinckley, particularly when he intends to justify himself  and sound intellectual, goes from flighty, high-fallutin’ language to gibberish, then utter nonsense until he is just uttering random syllables in a scattershot fashion.

Sherburne never hints that Hinckley is aware of any of the symptoms that stymie his success and lead him to do rash and dangerous acts, even before he contemplates killing Ronald Reagan. He is the boy next door who, no matter how hard he practices never masters the guitar, and now matter how romantic he believes he’s being, is never suave or nonchalant enough to get the girl.

You hear what Hinckley believes through Sherburne’s line deliveries. The actor is never arch or coy. He does not make Hinckley into a character. He keeps him an authentic and troubled young man who can rectify what he thinks in his own mind but is scary to us, not in the way a character who personifies evil incarnate would be, like Bill Sykes or Hannibal Lecter, but in the manner of a volcano that steams benignly until forces combine to make it erupt.

Sherburne never tries to win the audience to his side. Like the person he is playing, he keeps all self-contained. He is going through a life you are invited to watch rather than playing show-and-tell as John Hinckley.

Meghan Cary endows Jo Ann Hinckley with enough motherly angst that you sympathize with her. She is a woman whose son is out of control and who, even if she was more strict or disciplining, would never be able to contain him. Besides, she and her husband have reached a stage in life when they expect their children to be on their own and leave them to have time together in ways that involve parenting from a distance.

As Jodie Foster, Cary gets the walk and voice pattern down, even when she adds the slight Southern touch as Clarice. I particularly enjoyed her as the hooker who becomes exasperated with the direction John gives her when he is trying to replicate Jodie Foster as Iris. Kudos also for the clarity in which Cary presents the data on schizophrenia.

Russ Widdall has been one of Philadelphia’s most reliable actors for decades now. His reputation is not only upheld but advanced by his multiple performances in “Hinckley.” Widdall’s JFK alone, a sequence that might last 90 seconds, is a reason to see Dayle’s play.

The dignity tempered with a smiling gleam in the eye he gives Kennedy, the classic actor swagger he gives John Wilkes Booth, his bewildered slouch as Oswald claiming he doesn’t yet know the crime with which he is charged, his befuddlement and pique as Reynolds, and his defensive yet occasionally contrite bearing as John Hinckley, Sr. are all played with distinction and a focused sense of purpose. Widdall is also ready for the DeNiro role in a remake of “Taxi Driver” if one comes about.

“Hinckley” firmly grasps one’s attention from its opening and holds it until the end. All involved are to be applauded for their effort. If this production is a worshop, I don’t know where Dayle and her team want to take it next. In my opinion, never humble, they can rest on their laurels. Whatever the fate of “Hinckley,” I want to see it on each stage of its journey.

“Hinckley,” produced by New City Stage Company, runs though Sunday, March 30 at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes  are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The show for Friday, March 28 is set for 2 p.m. with no evening performance at 8. Starting on Wednesday, March 26, “Hinckley” will move from the Adrienne’s mainstage to the Skybox on the theater’s upper floor. Tickets are $30 with discounts for students and seniors. They can be obtained by calling 215-563-7500 or by going online to www.newcitystage.org.

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