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Stage Review : White Case Re-enacted In 'Justice'

June 25, 1985|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

BERKELEY — Emily Mann's "Execution of Justice" at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre is a theatrical re-enactment of the Dan White trial, with additional "testimony" from certain "uncalled witnesses." I expected it to be a provocative evening of theater, as was an earlier play on the subject, "The Dan White Incident." But the results are disappointingly cut and dried.

From the ironic title, it's clear that Mann feels--who doesn't?--that justice was one of the victims in the White saga. But her play seems to tell the story in a down-the-middle way, without overt theatrics. Most of the time we're in the courtroom hearing actual testimony. Even the "uncalled witnesses" are speaking for the record. (Mann conducted dozens of interviews for the play.)

Underneath, however, Mann is busy shaping her case. For example, she's careful not to risk engaging our sympathy with White--a risk that "The Dan White Incident" dared to take. Randall King plays White with a pout, and his confession to the police sounds fatuous and whining.

"It's just that I've been under an awful lot of pressure lately. . . . I was always honest and here they were devious. . . . I just kinda got all flushed and hot and I shot him. . . . " Those are in fact White's words, without the wrenching subtext of the actual tape-recorded confession.

We hear them coldly and find it hard to imagine why the jury didn't set them aside and concentrate on the fact that this man had just taken two lives.

Again, we snicker when a character witness (Will Marchetti) solemnly declares White to have been "a man among men" and "the best baseball player in South Lake Tahoe." Once more, this is from the record. Missing, though, is any mention of White's physical and moral courage as a police officer--a point the other play wasn't afraid to concede.

The dimmest viewer at the Rep can see through defense attorney James Harper's game plan of presenting White as a simple man of the people, driven to distraction by the machinations of the politicians down at City Hall--as though he weren't a politician himself. The viewer is likewise invited to speculate about the common sense of all psychiatrists, as Dakin Matthews propounds what came to be called "the Twinkie defense."

It's all so obvious that you wonder how a jury could possibly have bought it. But one has wondered about that from the beginning. "Execution of Justice" comes closest to life when it stops pretending to be objective and actually raises some questions about the trial.

Why did the prosecution virtually allow the defense to pick its own jury--all solid blue-collar types like Dan White? Why was the prosecution in general so namby-pamby? One of the "uncalled witnesses" is Joseph Freitas, then District Attorney (Charles Dean). He admits to the political delicacy of the case, suggesting that the defense was ready to reveal embarrassing material about Mayor Moscone if the prosecution went full out. Our ears perk up, but that's about as far as Freitas' testimony goes. This is a play, not a news conference--worse luck.

The other "uncalled witnesses" tend to be emblematic figures representing the various constituencies touched by the Moscone/Milk murders. An opening dual-soliloquy for a cop (Marchetti) and a gay in nun's drag (Chuck LaFont) is tough and human on both sides. Some of the other figures assume an unproven sainthood on the strength of their being "oppressed." The self-righteousness isn't much different from that of the White crowd.

Directors Oskar Eustis and Anthony Taccone move the evening briskly, like a good TV documentary. (Derek Duarte's lighting is critical here.) The cast is big and skillful, with almost everyone playing at least two characters. Often the job is to put a good face on a character while betraying something about him that makes him unreliable as a witness, an interesting challenge that most of the company meets well.

In the end, however, "Execution of Justice" can't help plodding. It sticks to the record, yet it leaves out those things in the record that add complexity and contradiction to the story. It makes the Dan White case thinner rather than thicker, without changing one's opinion about its disposition.

Does it do the community a service in keeping the case alive? Perhaps; and its productions in Washington and Minneapolis may have interesting overtones in regard to the way justice is executed in those venues.

But in San Francisco there is no danger of the Dan White case being forgotten. The San Francisco Chronicle reported last week that White seems to be back in the city, and would do well to leave it.

'EXECUTION OF JUSTICE' Emily Mann's play, at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre; presented with the San Jose Repertory Theatre in association with the Eureka Theatre Company. Directors Oskar Eustis, Anthony Taccone. Scenery Vicki Smith. Costumes Eliza Chugg. Music Steven Weinstock. Sound design James LeBrecht. Dramaturgy Eustis. Photographic material Daniel Nicoletta. Stage manager Meryl Lind Shaw. With Randall King, Will Marchetti, Chuck LaFont, James Griffiths, Judith Marx, Irving Israel, Ken Narasaki, Gloria Weinstock, Dakin Matthews, Charles Dean, Dan Cawthon, James Harper, Brian Thompson, Terry Ross, Ken Grantham, Abigail Van Alyn, Michelle Moraine. Plays Tues.-Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 2 and 7 p.m.; closes July 7. Tickets $13-$16; 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, (415) 845-4700.

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