If you leave Mauckingbird Theatre Company’s production of John Logan’s “Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story” not knowing how to feel about the characters, don’t worry: The actors have mixed feeling about them too.
Philadelphia’s only professional gay-themed theater company explores the true story of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold Jr., two wealthy Chicagoans and lovers who killed a 14-year-old boy in 1924 to see if they could commit the perfect murder.
They didn’t. The subsequent trial ignited a media frenzy with legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow fighting to save the men — who were 18 and 19, respectively, at the time of the murder — from execution.
Identifying the sympathetic characters in this production is a subjective task, especially for the cast members. Brian Kurtas, who plays Leopold, thinks his character will win over the audience despite his reprehensible actions.
“I’m hoping that they find a lot of sympathy for Nathan just because I’m playing him. Off the bat, when you learn the story of the trial, it’s horrific what they did. They murdered somebody. But the reasons behind why they do it and what’s motivating their thought processes are really sympathetic. They’re blinded and they’re led by love, and it’s something that everybody can relate to.”
The out actor added that he himself was “enthralled by the story.”
“This is definitely something I want to be a part of. The character of Nathan is so complex. I wanted to learn more about him. It’s a really dark play. It’s a really fresh story and kind of new for Mauckingbird.”
Robb Hutter, who plays a reporter as well as a psychiatrist in the production, doesn’t see the titular characters in exactly the same light.
“The play wasn’t written for a protagonist. Is it the attorney for the defense? Is it the prosecutor?” he posed. “I think that what we’re seeing is the absolute mystery as to what they are. Are they insane? Are they two deranged teenagers? I don’t think the culture had the vocabulary that we would have had today for evaluating them. We don’t get stuck in a black-and-white portrayal of these kids. The psychiatrist is stuck in this trying to figure out what they are. How could two kids commit this and not feel any remorse?”
One aspect of the play the two can agree upon is how this case was feverishly covered and, at the same time, driven by the newspapers of the day.
“You see the press framing everything in a way to sell papers,” Hutter said. “There was a lyricism. The language of the press in that day was very poetic. The way that we’re depicting the press is their urgency to tell the story. The press is as much the shaper of the story as the storymakers.”
“It’s interesting the way that the media designs things to be controversial,” Kurtas said. “It’s definitely not the same as it was back then in terms of what we’re allowed to do with the media, like allowing swarms of paparazzi in the courtroom, but that’s something that existed then. We don’t do that now, but we’re not too far off in terms of what we allow the media to thrust into the spotlight for us.”
Hutter added that while Leopold and Loeb’s relationship was a factor in the media coverage, it wasn’t the main focus of the overall story.
“These guys were Jewish, so there was the anti-Semitism and the Ku Klux Klan,” he said. “These guys are gay. These guys are rich. All these things really heightened it. I think their sexuality was a big part of it, but I’m not sure it was spoken about. There’s a moment where I as a psychiatrist reveal their sexuality and the press goes bananas.”
Kurtas added that the script for “Never the Sinner” doesn’t delve too deeply into the relationship between the main characters because there wasn’t language for their relationship at the time.
“Homosexuality wasn’t something that people spoke about,” he said. “In the history books, Nathan and Richard didn’t want people to know that they were gay. Nevertheless, that’s still something that my character is led by — his love for the other character.”
“Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story” runs through Aug. 30 at Adrienne Theatre’s Main Stage, 2030 Sansom St. For more information, visit www.mauckingbirdtheatreco.org or call (215) 923-8909.