MURDER IN THE FIRST
June 12, 2012
“We find the institution of Alcatraz guilty of crimes against humanity.”
So ends “Murder in the First” by Dan Gordon and directed by Michael
Parva at 59E59.
Willy (Chad Kimball—last seen in an outstanding performance in “Memphis”) is on trial for ripping an inmate’s throat out with
a spoon. Hundreds witnessed the crime, but it happened within hours of
Willy’s release from three years in solitary confinement (no light, 30 minutes of exercise a year). Disorientation was only one of his problems.
Initially incarcerated because of petty theft, he tried to escape and
that landed him in Alcatraz. Unfortunately, this story is repeated in
one version after another year in and year out in the daily papers. In
this production based (somewhat) on a true case, the drama remains relatively muted until the end of the second half, when the young, Harvard
educated attorney finally jams into a verbal groove.
Although the story is compelling, director Parva’s pacing melts one
scene into another instead of jutting ahead, building an indisputable
head of steam.
In an understated performance, Kimball speaks softly, dazed by the
years of incarceration and unable to connect with anything except
baseball cards and the idea of women. Intent on saving him from the death penalty, Guy Burnet (Henry Davidson) puts Alcatraz on trial. A ballsy move for a first time court authorized Defender; he believes that saving Wally from the death penalty will equal success. But that is not the case.
In one of the most affecting scenes near the end of the second half,
Wally cries out for a guilty plea because life back at Alcatraz is worse
than death. A committed company of actors inhabits the tame production.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis