PTD’s "Anatomy of a Murder" features iconic UP setting, still relevant themes
John Voelker -- a defense lawyer, prosecuting attorney, and Michigan Supreme Court Justice -- brought legal credibility, unusual frankness, and a down-home Upper Peninsula sensibility to his landmark novel Anatomy of a Murder (under the pen name Robert Travers).
Director Otto Preminger and screenwriter Wendell Mayes brought those qualities to the 1959 film version, shot in and around Marquette. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards including best picture and best actor for James Stewart.
PTD Productions in Ypsilanti is presenting a later stage version by Elihu Winer. Winer’s plodding version eliminates some major characters and key plot points and makes little of the UP atmosphere that is a central feature in Voelker’s novel and Preminger’s stark black and white location photography. This is a wordy, condensed version, though still set in the deeply rural 1950s UP.
PTD director Alice Fell and her cast make a valiant effort to bring some life to a play that never carries that same sense of reality and shock for which the book and film were noted. On opening night the cast had some clear problems with dropped lines and efforts to cover only made the problem worse. The pacing was also slow, even in the courtroom scenes that should have snapped.
Paul Biegler is a small town lawyer, recently defeated in his re-election bid for county prosecutor. He is happy to wind down his legal work and spend more time fly fishing (as was Justice Voelker). Biegler is encouraged by his drinking buddy and lapsed lawyer Parnell McCarthy to accept a case that might raise his profile and bring in some much needed revenue. It’s a shocking murder with press attracting elements including sex, rape, jealousy, and, as defendant, an angry Army lieutenant who served in World War II and Korea and claims temporary insanity.
In the PTD production, Biegler and McCarthy are both older lawyers. Biegler has been nursing his disappointment over the election and McCarthy has been nursing the bottle for so long he no longer practices law except as a researcher for Biegler. In the book and film, Parnell is Biegler’s mentor and friend but not his contemporary.
Tim Henning plays a stout, soft-spoken, and laconic Biegler. He starts a bit hesitantly but seems to get more focused as the play goes on. He is burdened with some long interrogation scenes that drag along. The play never allows a meaningful presentation of Biegler, the outdoorsman, fly fisherman, and easy-going but deceptively shrewd lawyer.
Christopher Potter plays a giddy and playful Parnell. He even resembles the film version's Parnell (Arthur O’Connell) and conveys the character's giddy enthusiasm and struggling-to-get-sober personality. He gets tangled a bit in the dialogue but is credible in the character.
The two actors have few scenes to deliver the relationship between their characters, but in those few scenes they do suggest a bond that helps them work together.
Wyatt Woodside is a swaggering Lt. Manion, the shifty defendant who uses irresistible urge as an excuse for fatally shooting a local innkeeper who has (or hasn’t) beaten and raped his wife. Woodside brings a lot of manly posturing and bluster to the part, but never really becomes the complex character.
Mary Hopper plays the sexy wife, Laura. The tensions between Laura and Biegler are muted here. There is one scene of her attempting a seduction of the lawyer that goes nowhere. The issue of rape and the reputation of the victim is still a relevant topic, and Hopper plays Laura with just that bit of ambiguity that makes it difficult to decide just what happened.
Women play several male roles in this production. Fran Potasnik plays the key role of Michigan Assistant Attorney General Dancer, brought in by the local prosecutor to handle the hot case. She plays Dancer as feisty and determined but not cynical or lacerating as in the film version, which has a slick male attorney (a young George C. Scott) badgering Laura about her sexual history. That’s a very different dynamic
Joe York is both poignantly troubled and amusing as Alphonse Paquette, a bartender who has seen too much and would rather avoid telling what he knows. York brings a fidgety energy to the role and delivers his lines with humor.
The large cast seems to enjoy being part of a classic Michigan story.
PTD’s Anatomy of a Murder has an iconic setting, some courtroom fireworks, and raises some still pertinent questions. The production needs a faster pace, more focus on the dialogue and what’s being said and why, and some more stage business to fill in the many gaps in the play as written.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
"Anatomy of a Murder" continues at the Riverside Arts Center, 76 N. Huron Street, Ypsilanti, at 8 pm on Aug. 25-27 and Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, and 2 pm on Aug. 27 and Sept. 2. For ticket information, call 734-483-7345 or visit [http://www.ptdproductions.com|ptdproductions.com].