Courtroom dramas provide good entertainment; maybe lawyers can see many legal flaws that audiences or drama critics miss, but they allow for exciting stories that often deal with taboo or rarely explored subject matter. "Nuts," which opened the 2011-12 season of the St. Louis Actors' Studio last night at the Gaslight Theater, looks at some of those, and also at some familiar topics like personal freedom and human dignity in a strong production that will run through Oct. 23.
It's also one more in a collection of dramas with strong scripts and powerful, intelligent acting that have kicked off the local season in wonderful style. From the Rep to New Line, Hot City, Mustard Seed, Stray Dog and Upstream, we're off to a very good start and it's wonderful to experience.
"Nuts," both a Broadway play and a mainstream movie, stemmed from a true story, as good theater almost always does. A New York prostitute murdered a customer, claimed she feared for her life. Tom Topor wrote both play and screenplay (the movie starred Barbra Streisand and Richard Dreyfuss).The St. Louis Actors' studio production, directed skilfully by Milt Zoth, manages to keep tension high while there is very little physical action. It's a talky, almost static play, like most courtroom dramas, but William Roth, Lara Buck and Donna Weinsting take charge of keeping the story moving. Buck is the heroine, a smart, tough woman who ticks off her sexual talents as if she were advertising for customers. Roth is her attorney, trying to bring success and freedom to a difficult client who who has admitted guilt but is trying to find justice. Weinsting is her mother, who has not the vaguest idea what her daughter's life has been like. She flails like a novice swimmer caught in a rip tide and her testimony turns into a sad, pitiful monologue as she realizes that absence of knowledge.
John Contini is splendid as Buck's stepfather, an integral part of the problem, and his fumbling and bumbling under Roth's pointed questioning makes him almost look worse than he really is. Bob Harvey is the patient -- sometimes too patient -- presiding judge, Alan McClintock is the single-minded prosecuting attorney, Steve Callahan, the pompous, preening, egotistical psychiatrist who is supposed to diagnose and treat Buck. It's a difficult role for her; for the first two acts of a three-act play she has few lines and little to do except grimace, silently protest to her attorney and break loose for a couple of outbursts. When she finally takes the stand, she lets it all out, and there's some high drama. On one level, she is fighting for her life, because she knows she can be kept incarcerated in a mental hospital for the rest of her life, without a trial or a jury, by doctors who testify as to her incompetence.
Steve Thompson and Rachel Visocan round out the cast, he wearing a quizzical smile and a kind attitude toward the prisoner, she as the court reporter who delivers a final epilogue. On one level, Torpor took the easy way out by setting his drama as a hearing on mental competency and not a full-fledged trial.
Cristie Johnson designed the courtroom setting and Jennifer (JC) Krajicek the costumes, but it was off-putting to see the psychiatrist in an unmatched jacket and slacks. A handful of fumbled lines in the first act slowed things a little, but once the jitters passed, all went smoothly.
"Nuts," a production of the St. Louis Actors' Studio, opened Friday at the Gaslight Theater and will run through Oct. 23