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Review - Assassins

Roy J. Harris, Jr.
The Patriot Ledger
November 11, 2009
Dealing with the dark side, on the ‘Assassins’ stage

As a rapt 13-year-old in 1960, I heard John F. Kennedy weave his spell to a throng of supporters at a St. Louis shopping mall. It was my first presidential campaign.

As a college student nine years later, I went door-to-door for Robert F. Kennedy, who, like his brother, would be gunned down for his public service.

So what was I doing on a Braintree stage last weekend, in the company of the killers and would-be killers who targeted JFK, RFK, Abraham Lincoln, and a half-dozen other American heads of state?

I was in the cast of a musical: Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant but rarely performed “Assassins.”

Our first three performances of a two-weekend run, I’m happy to say, seemed to wow the packed houses. (We have three more, at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday.)

Literally and figuratively, it is a fantastic score. And it was the powerful, dark music that I’ve always loved — by the same songwriter who wrote “Company,” “Into the Woods,” “Sweeney Todd,” and the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” — that drew me to audition for the play.

The experience has been exhilarating — not least because of the dedication of the cast: veteran community theater actors like Boston attorney Dan Kelly, who brings a rare, and scary, understanding to the role of John Wilkes Booth. Or Stephen Lee, whose Charles Guiteau is maniacally perfect as he plugs James Garfield in the back, and unapologetically goes to the gallows for his deed.

The failed assassins are hardly less notable.

A particularly stunning performance is turned in by Hingham High School student Maggie Weston, playing a five-times-married mother-of-three, Sara Jane Moore, as she bumbles her way through trying to kill Gerald Ford. Her character is comically exciting, in stark contrast to mine: the ploddingly single-minded Leon Czolgosz, an abused worker who murdered William McKinley at a Buffalo exposition in 1901.

Yet even now, after bonding with the other 12 members of the Curtain Call Theatre cast through weeks of rehearsals and performances — singing some haunting, very difficult music — I walk off the stage each evening with a very strange feeling. As if I have ventured through the dark side of American history.

It very much suggests the malevolence we all remember as we beheld the smoldering World Trade Center towers, and a few of us recall from that November 1963 morning in Dallas, or that 1968 California primary-election “victory celebration.” Or from the news flash that President Ronald Reagan had been shot – an event that he would later leaven, so characteristically of the Great Communicator, with jokes about assailant John Hinckley’s ineptitude. (“Where did that guy learn to shoot, the Russian Army?”)

I have been a journalist since the 1960s, from Boston to Pittsburgh to St. Louis to Los Angeles. And in that lifetime “role” I always told myself that I was prepared to encounter that dark side of the news. Fortunately, my direct exposure to it has been negligible, although I will never forget having to dig with all my might into trying to explain the causes of the Challenger Space Shuttle tragedy.

Still, for my one experience covering a presidential entourage — a joyous 1991 gathering of five presidents: Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford for the dedication of Reagan’s California library — I remember at least fleetingly asking myself the unimaginable “What if” question.

In such a world as ours, how could one not?