Love Kills

Suicide may top the list of sins of the self, but there's another that feels like suicide day after day after day: the sin of loving the wrong person too much. It's a prison sentence in which you're both the perpetrator and jailer. If you're lucky, you escape the cell one day, maybe with your pride wounded and some valuable lessons learned; if merely unlucky, the cell becomes your world, your life turns to shit, and your dog starts pissing on your leg.

But if you're really, really unlucky, you wind up like Mary Surratt: hanged by the neck until dead.

Surratt is the subject of OC playwright Tom Swimm's new play, The Hanging of Mary Surratt. She was the first woman hanged by the U.S. government. Prosecutors said she conspired to kill Abraham Lincoln, but her real crime was more likely that she loved John Wilkes Booth—the actor who shot Lincoln in Ford's Theatre during the play Our American Cousin.

No one knows much about Surratt, and examining this footnote to history might shed new light on the infamous conspiracy. But while you get a sense from the language that Swimm is passionate about her story, you don't get that same burst of excitement from this New Voices Playwright Theatre production.

Take the title character. Although this play is all about Surratt—begins with her contemplating mortality in jail, ends with her body hanging from a noose—she is nevertheless the least interesting of the two main characters on stage. It's Booth who upstaged the entire cast of Our American Cousin148 years ago, and damn if he's not up to his old tricks here. Swimm's best writing usually flows from Booth, particularly in a series of devastating speeches describing the assassination and his unrepentant nature. Colorful and well-spoken, Booth (played by Jonathan Pier Durante) dominates every scene he's in, reducing Surratt to a mere cameo. Indeed, Suratt only comes to life in Booth's mouth. We imagine her as a cross between the Virgin Mary and Boticelli's Venus—beautiful, exotic, alluring, yet maternal, virginal, deeply spiritual.

That's not the Surratt portrayed by Grace Lynne or directed by Marla Gam-Hudson. Instead of powerful and mysterious, Surratt seems slightly addled, a homebody desperate for love. She has goo-goo eyes for Booth and loves her rosary, but outside of that, it's difficult to determine whether she has any real life to her. She's sexy like a kitchen sponge.

The best—but also the worst—writing in this play comes in the monologues. Swimm relies too much on speechifying to tell his story. There's always a temptation when you're as gifted as Swimm to write grand oratory, but the talkiness kills momentum and character development.

All that chatter and the mostly bloodless take on Surratt make it difficult to really know what Swimm wants to say. Does he want us outraged that Surratt was executed on flimsy evidence and the public's bloodlust? Does he want us to ponder why we remember Booth but not Surratt?

Here's hoping that Swimm uses this workshop production to refine his play—and then hands it off to another producing entity. Even with the play's problems, the force of Swimm's writing makes it clear this is a play from a local playwright that deserves more than a dramaturgical footnote.

The Hanging of Mary Surratt at the Chance Theater, 5576 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 777-3033. Sat.-Sun., 5 p.m. Through April 20. $13-$15.

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