Harvey Milk will never share the legendary status of Dr. Martin Luther King. Even in the gay community, his brutal assassination in 1978 doesnt resound like the deaths of that civil rights leader, John F. Kennedy or Malcolm X. Few people solemnly discuss what they were doing when they heard the beloved San Francisco activist had been shot repeatedly by his homophobic political rival, Dan White. Two decades and several documentaries after Whites infamous sentence a mere seven years for voluntary manslaughter Milks death remains a comparatively minor footnote in American history.
Execution of Justice, which Lost Nation Theater debuted last week, is playwright Emily Manns desperate attempt to exonerate one of Americas most under-appreciated heroes. Based almost entirely on court transcripts and TV interviews, her script is a montage of trial sequences, police interrogations and slanted news coverage. In the end, justice is never achieved for Milk, either in the courtroom or, unfortunately, on stage.
Lost Nation does deserve credit for approaching the tough topic of queer politics. As the play opens, Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone are already dead. White confesses to the murders to his wife in church, so the mystery is solved in the first five minutes. For the next two hours, the audience serves as jury in Whites ludicrous trial; the defense and district attorney make their cases, interrogating a host of witnesses, trying to unearth the motivation behind the murders.
White, who attributed his slayings to work-related stress, is now famous in law schools for his Twinkie defense. According to defense attorney Douglas Schmidt, Whites clinical depression led to junk-food binges that affected the chemicals in his brain. When his alleged stress became unbearable, White carried a pistol to Milks office, sneaked in through a side window, traded a few words and blew Milk away. He then staggered down the hall and plugged Mayor Moscone as well.
From a dramatic perspective, it feels strange that neither Milk nor Moscone ever appears on stage. The spotlight falls only on Dan White, the tortured victim of sugary treats, and the two lawyers whose arguments will determine his fate. The battle of spin rages for two long acts, interspersed with brief testimonials by people in the street, including a White-supporting homophobe, Milks lovelorn partner and a loud, leather-clad biker. Execution of Justice is a parade of monologues, summarizing the corrupt political climate of San Francisco and calling into question the very nature of the American justice system.
Director Lisa A. Tromovich is an effective traffic cop, mapping complex routes for her many actors. Rapid scene changes help invigorate a plodding script, requiring the hard-working actors to change quickly into their many costumes. In a few seconds, a dim courtroom transforms into a bright street scene, then later into an emotional candlelit vigil.
Technical director Robyn Osiecki has masterfully organized her ambitious set, complete with a rotating spotlight, ear mikes for prompting there are a lot of lines and scores of props. Most impressive is the three-screen projection system that exhibits photos and video footage from the period.
But all these special effects only add noise to an already confusing story. As a docu-drama, Execution of Justice is clunky and uneven; there is virtually no dialogue between any two characters. Mann has somehow failed to realize that real-life people subpoenaed to the stand or shoved in front of TV cameras instantly become actors, who put on their best faces and never reveal their true personalities. We dont see White in jail or his lawyers chatting over coffee. White exchanges only one full sentence with his wife, and thats to say that he committed the crime. In effect, each character talks from a vacuum; they are sketchily drawn and symbolic at best. The playwright has compiled some exhaustive research, which could make for a profound essay, but the plays dramatic core collapses at the get-go.
Mann clearly sides with the prosecution, and for good reason. Whites light sentence ignored all evidence and depended on the presumed sympathies of the straight, white jury. The riots at the end of the play are meant to make us angry at the system. But the only character Mann explores is White himself, making him the plays de facto protagonist.
Mann dedicates almost the entire play to the defense trying to expose the many contrived arguments but theres too little prosecution to counter it. With limited stage time, the DA gets lost, along with all his more reasonable evidence. In his absence, we cant help but tune in to the defense and begin to identify with Whites flimsy position. Maybe clinical depression would make an upstanding ex-cop like White go a little crazy. Whos to say?
Here, Lost Nation makes its one mistake independent of the script: casting the lawyers. David Stradley plays defender Schmidt, who should be a total slimeball if we are to side with The People. But Stradley is a cool, collected lawyer who rarely raises his voice and has an almost pleasant presentation. As District Attorney Thomas F. Norman, Kim Bent is a gravelly, crotchety monster. Both are natural actors, but Bent makes the DA look like a frigid, friendless old man who growls angrily at every witness.
We know nothing about these men just their drawn-out arguments. And when Stradley makes his final remarks, admitting hes nervous, were inclined to reach out to him, because hes the more timid of the two and hes struggling to save his client from the chair.
This character dynamic implodes the entire message of the play. Even if you cant sympathize with White, you can certainly root for an underdog like Stradley. Perhaps if we saw White in his fatal confrontation with Milk and Moscone, the audience might feel differently. But the play isnt about Milk, for in the end we know nothing about him. If you werent acquainted with Harvey Milk before, Execution of Justice wouldnt make his death any more tragic. Never mind the lesser-known Moscone, who barely gets mentioned.
Mann continues to misuse her sources until the final blackout. The psychologists who helped defend Whites erratic state of mind are portrayed as sweater-clad dorks who can eagerly describe the murder in psychoanalytic terms. But theres no visible malice towards Milk or gay culture in general. Tromovich has her actors play up the therapists nerdiness, but this is a cheap shot and irrelevant to the case; their arguments sound well-researched, unlike those of the blustery prosecution.
Later, when we see the protesters on the street, they start throwing bombs and screaming about the poverty of American justice. But their worthy points are never fleshed out; they just look like mean-spirited militants.
For all its good intentions, Lost Nation fights an impossible battle with this play. Energetic acting only pushes Manns murky message further into an abyss. And with targets as big and important as justice and sexual pride, its all the more vital not to miss them.