True life courtroom drama will leave theater-goers in suspense

Jack Zanger as Leopold, Pete Winfrey as Loeb and John Flack as Clarence Darrow in “Never the Sinner” at the New Jewish Theater.
Jack Zanger as Leopold, Pete Winfrey as Loeb and John Flack as Clarence Darrow in “Never the Sinner” at the New Jewish Theater.

A love story emerges within “Never the Sinner,” a compelling courtroom drama about the 1924 Trial of the Century that will send shivers down your spine.

John Logan’s 1985 intricately detailed play delves into the madness behind the motives of Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb, brilliant and privileged Chicago college students who murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks for the “thrill of the kill.”

This taut, absorbing production scorches the New Jewish Theatre’s Wool Studio stage through Sunday, depicting the notorious duo’s infatuation with each other, their shared delusions about philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “superman” theory, and their desire to commit the perfect crime.

Jack Zanger and Pete Winfrey superbly convey their characters’ complexities. Zanger, as intellectual Leopold, and Winfrey, as cool, calculating Loeb, are chilling as the pair capable of such brutality.

The actors convincingly espouse the rich young men’s disturbing beliefs that they were superior and invincible. But as they crave attention, their obsessive natures and haughty attitudes show how damaged they are.

John Flack is strong as noble defense attorney Clarence Darrow, who entered a guilty plea instead of the expected “not guilty by reason of insanity.” He fervently delivers excerpts from Darrow’s famous 12-hour summation arguing against the death penalty for his clients.

Eric Dean White is smooth as the prosecuting attorney Norman Crowe, horrified by the crime and incredulous about the perpetrators.

As the jazz-age media, Will Bonfiglio mimics Walter Winchell, while Maggie Conroy and John Reidy are confident yet jaded reporters. With righteous indignation, the trio stride across the stage, doling out sensational details to a captivated public.

Director Rick Dildine shrewdly shifted tones as needed, and was steady with the lurid details. He created an unsettling mood as Leopold and Loeb discussed society’s ethics and morality with such disdain.

Peter and Margery Spack’s interesting set design focuses on Leopold’s ornithology expertise, and the bird and nature details are to be savored. The lighting design by Maureen Berry is particularly noteworthy.

This haunting, compelling look at crime, punishment, the press and the times will not only unnerve you, but send you on an information quest to find out more about the notorious case from 93 years ago.

‘Never the Sinner’

Thursday, Saturday, Sunday through April 2

New Jewish Theatre

Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus, Creve Coeur, Mo.