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Execution of Justice
Theatre Reviews by T.H. McCulloh, Drama-Logue, October 29-November 4, 1987

The City Hall killings perpetuated by Dan White in November of 1978, on the heels of the Jonestown massacre, shook San Francisco almost as violently as the quake and fire of 1906. But the city survived even the aftershocks, the riots following the murders of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. It was a time of drama and wrenching emotion in Baghdad-by-the-Bay. Emily Mann’s acclaimed theatre piece concerning the killings, the trial and events surrounding them comes to Los Angeles in an excellent production by the Colony. But the quality of the production only makes more apparent the lack of drama in Mann’s collection of testimony relevant to the case. There are moments when one is caught up emotionally in the events, particularly as presented here but in sum Execution of Justice is little more than a documentary. The personalities involved, from White, his wife, the detectives and lawyers concerned, to bystanders and friends of the victims, have not been formed into a play of any sort. When the information is given at the end that White was paroled from Soledad Prison in 1984 and presumably committed suicide at his wife’s San Francisco home in 1985, one has the feeling Joe Friday is wrapping up another case.

The drama is there inside the story but Mann encompasses too much information in her reportorial zeal for it to be much use as drama. The Colony production makes it look as good as it’s going to look. Under the expert guiding hand of Todd Nielsen, which paints the events across the gray steps of Scott Storey’s impressive and evocative setting, the company down to the most minor roles is excellent. Only the necessity of some doubling detracts from the attention to detail Nielsen and his actors have given the production, and Nielsen’s handling of some of the individual scenes is impressive, making more sense of them than Mann has provided.

The central figure, of course, is Dan White, here played by Richard Lineback. Like most of the company his few lines are surrounded by long stretches of filling the stage, but those scenes make their mark, particularly the scene concerning the taking of White’s testimony by tape reporter late on the day of the murders; it is the theatrical high point of the evening. Josh Gordon also makes points as the hustling defense attorney Douglas Schmidt, as does Russ Martin as beleaguered prosecutor Thomas Norman. Lindy Nisbet has a couple of touching moments as White’s wife, and Hugh Maguire is impressive as Frank Falzone, the detective who take White’s confession, as one of the double-talking psychiatrists and as Milk’s successor Harry Britt. Jim Hatch has a good depth and a strong connection with his portrayal of a stereotypical cop, and Whitney Rydbeck is wonderful in several roles but particularly as psychiatrist Jones whose existence has the appearance of one grand tic. In the difficult and sensitive role of Harvey Milk’s friend Scott Segall gives a sure, dedicated performance rich in subtext and deep feeling. Particularly as Cyr Copertini, Moscone’s secretary, RoZa Horvath gives a good picture of a very nervous lady trying to maintain an attitude.

Robert Budaska creates strong images in his several roles, particularly as ex-DA Freitas and the entire company follows suit: Bob Ari, funny and sad as Sister Boom Boom; Kristina Coggins, Ruby Millsap, J. Sean Harris, Stuart Lancaster, Sandra Kinder, Eileen T’Kaye, Keith Mills and Darrell Sandeen.

Storey’s set design, cold, gray and monumental steps surrounding the steps, is waiting for great tragedy under Tim Morishita’s excellent, detailed lighting design, but the highest instances of emotional impact it sees are the moment of White’s confession and the well staged and heart bending recreation of the candlelight procession to San Francisco’s City Hall the night of the killings. John Fisher’s sound design is impeccable in choice and execution, as are the costumes coordinated by Bonita Friedericy. Christian P. Wolf coordinated the video which is not only used to give media urgency to some of the testimony onstage but also to feather the production with footage from the film The Times of Harvey Milk, which gives the production flavor and immediacy. It is very sad that this craftsmanship and dedication hasn’t a play worthy of notice.

Copyright 1987 Drama-Logue 
Reprinted with Permission
Execution of Justice at the Colony Theatre