Screw Loose: St. Louis Actors' Studio gets tangled up with a crazy whore and goes Nuts

Screw Loose: St. Louis Actors' Studio gets tangled up with a crazy whore and goes <i>Nuts</i>

Claudia Faith Draper is a high-end prostitute in New York City, and she has killed one of her clients. She claims she acted in self-defense; presumably a trial will ascertain the facts of the case. And yet, although Claudia has been indicted for manslaughter in the first degree, there's a good chance she won't be tried at all. The state of New York thinks she should be declared mentally incompetent to stand trial. Her well-to-do parents, perhaps fearing the scandal a trial would bring, also want Claudia put away. So the key issue in Tom Topor's 1980 courtroom drama, Nuts, currently on view at St. Louis Actors' Studio in a staging directed by Milt Zoth, does not concern guilt or innocence. What's at stake here is the due process accorded all citizens in the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: the right to a speedy and public trial.

"We are not so formal here as in other parts of the Supreme Court," explains Judge Murdoch (Bob Harvey, who oversees these proceedings with a sympathetic authority) at the outset of a hearing to determine Claudia's sanity. "We allow a good deal of leeway." Yet even with this welcome informality, Act One gets off to a sluggish start. The testimony and cross-examination of the first witness, a Bellevue Hospital psychiatrist (Steve Callahan), lays out the details of his examination. But there's no liftoff here. Everything is pretty much by the numbers as adversaries are established.

Magically, Act Two is as riveting as Act One was perfunctory. Claudia's mother, Rose Kirk, takes the stand. As she fills in the details of her daughter's life, members of the audience begin to lean forward in their seats. Not that Claudia's story is particularly compelling. But Topor's writing strikes a quirky nerve. "You never see an Episcopal minister with green eyes," Rose oddly informs us as she recounts her daughter's wedding, and we sense she's straining to hold her agitation in check. As the conflicted mother, Donna Weinsting is a marvel. Ever the personification of simplicity, she nevertheless imparts a steady, subtle build to her testimony. As the delivery accelerates, the audience's emotional investment increases. By the time she leaves the stand, she has absorbed us into her portrayal. We've worked as hard as Weinsting has; maybe harder, because we've had to breathe in rhythm with her, yet what she's accomplished seems effortless and natural.

John Lamb

Location Info

Map

Gaslight Theater

358 N. Boyle Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63108

Category: Performing Arts Venues

Region: St. Louis - Central West End

Details

Nuts
Through October 23 at the Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle Avenue.
Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors).
Call 314-458-2978 or visit www.stlas.org.

Rose is followed on the stand by her husband, Claudia's stepfather, played by John Contini. Once again we are treated to a consummate performance. Arthur Kirk is a confident man. Contini plays him to the hilt, right up to that moment when his confidence betrays him and he succumbs to confusion and the kind of accountability that powerful men rarely experience or understand. Thanks to artful work from Contini and Weinsting, Act Two ends with the audience in thrall.

Act Three is all Claudia's. Now Nuts begins to pull together its thesis about the integrity of the individual — even the rebellious individual — in an ever more depersonalizing society. Yet Nuts treads a delicate balance here, because at this point viewers are obligated to decide how they feel about Claudia. Act One has introduced her as, at the very least, belligerent and sarcastic, if not crazy. There's nothing sympathetic about her. But by play's end she is rational and in charge. There's an underlying sense here that if Claudia is being manipulated by the legal system, so too is the viewer being manipulated by the playwright.

Because of that, although Claudia is the play's reason for being, it also might be that she is the least-realized character on the stage. Lara Buck plays the role with a Jessica Lange quality that makes Claudia more appealing than edgy. This production (which on opening night felt under-rehearsed) has not yet resolved Claudia's inconsistencies, nor has it plumbed the prickly nuances of her relationship with her attorney (William Roth). Perhaps these added resonances will come during the play's run. But already there are those occasional moments — and they are thrilling moments — that remind us of why we love to go to the theater.

 
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