There are few more colorful figures in the history of American justice than Clarence Darrow. From the Scopes “Monkey” trial to the Leopold and Loeb defense, there was scarcely a newsworthy case from the 1890s to the 1930s in which this controversial celebrity attorney didn’t figure. But was the real Darrow a noble hero of the downtrodden or a shameless huckster chasing a buck? Gary Anderson’s one-man show “Naked Darrow,” currently enjoying a short run at Illusion Theater, posits that both characterizations are too simplistic when applied to this driven, often haunted man.
Anderson developed and performed “Naked Darrow” in 2011 at Park Square Theatre, where it was staged as a workshop production. Since that time, the play has been seen off-Broadway and was reworked to include recently revealed information about the famous attorney. The Illusion production, directed by Michael Robins, also features a series of post-show symposiums that discuss aspects of Darrow’s career.
Anderson’s play begins at the end, as the 80-year-old Darrow seeks desperately to re-evaluate his life and his legacy while sliding inexorably into dementia. Pacing back and forth from a desk to a podium, pawing through boxes of mementos, he alternates between incisive recollections of his most brilliant moments in court and trembling horror at the growing loss of his faculties. In one particularly effective scene, Anderson evokes Darrow’s anguish at his memory loss by recounting an incident in which he didn’t recognize his own wife.
This production focuses squarely on the aspects of Darrow that are most problematic. Specifically, Anderson explores the accusation of juror bribing brought against Darrow in 1911, which led to two trials and his ultimate disbarment in California. While Anderson doesn’t judge Darrow’s culpability, he clearly evokes the extent to which this episode was one of the bleakest in the man’s career.
As Anderson’s Darrow tallies up the gains and losses in his life, the other case that comes to the fore is his defense of Ossian Sweet, a black doctor on trial for the murder of a white man. Anderson ratchets the tension up as Darrow recalls Sweet’s horrifically detailed story about a lynching he had witnessed as a child. It’s in moments such as this that Anderson conjures the powerful sway of Darrow’s oratorical powers.
Anderson presents a multi-faceted man in “Naked Darrow,” examining his character not only through his work as a litigator, but also as a father, grandfather, husband and son. It’s a warts-and-all portrait compelling in its complexity and its humanity.
Lisa Brock writes about theater.