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Law Nerve

A famous lawyer's foibles are laid bare

Paul Morella makes his case.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 6/23/2010

A Passion for Justice: An Encounter with Clarence Darrow

By Jack Marshall and Paul Morella

Through June 26 at Everyman Theatre

Jack Marshall and actor Paul Morella wrote their first version of A Passion for Justice: An Encounter with Clarence Darrow a decade ago when another play they planned to perform about the renowned lawyer fell through. The idea was to create a Darrow play that showed his lapses of character as well as his great ideas, making the myth back in to a man. They perhaps succeed too thoroughly with Justice, which is more of an intriguing history lesson than a transporting night at the theater.

Darrow was born in small town Ohio in 1857 to parents who were voracious readers and lovers of ideas. Enjoying debating and giving speeches since he was child, Darrow went into law and moved to Chicago. He became a champion of the labor movement, defending union leaders in several prominent cases. He was also staunchly against the death penalty and had liberal views on everything from race relations to the criminal justice system. But as Justice relates, he was not a saint. He was a wanton philander who believed in free love, much to the chagrin of his wives. But his biggest vice was his ego.

When Marshall, artistic director of the American Century Theater in Arlington, and Morella wrote the one-man show, they largely wanted to use Darrow's own words, resulting in several long courtroom speeches. Seeing them back to back, you easily tease out a formula to Darrow's rhetoric. This case isn't about the defendant, he would explain to the jury, it's about the larger issues. It's about the course of justice, the future of this great country. He would eventually wind his way to a description of how children will thank the jury members for making the right decision, quote some poetry, and then shed a few tears. It feels manipulative, and Darrow (Morella) admits to resorting to tricks and hucksterism for the win.

Alone onstage and speaking for nearly the entire two-hour running time, Morella inhabits Darrow seamlessly, giving the impression of an intimate talk with the lawman in his messy office. Morella walks in from the audience to start the play. As he talks, he fusses with items on his desk or other debris--newspaper clippings, a baseball bat, a typewriter, photos, playing cards. The mess serves to remind you that no one's life is simple. Everybody is an odd combination of this and that.

Morella has been playing this part for 10 years now, and he does a nice job of making it appear like he's speaking off the cuff, throwing out snappy lines such as, "Sometimes I don't know what I'm talking about until I hear what I have to say" as if they just occurred to him. He portrays Darrow as a deeply conflicted man--one who admires his own cleverness but never really believes he merits praise.

Still, after so long in the role, something is missing. The play creates a redemptive arc for Darrow, taking him from egotistical, philandering radical to loving husband dedicated to bettering his fellow man. You hear it in the play's words, but Morella doesn't emphasize it. His portrayal is just as formulaic as Darrow's early courtroom speeches. In each vignette, he moves through self-deprecation and evasive humor to a moment of anger where his voice turns to pure gravel, finally ending in tears. The tears, which are so moving at first, quickly lose their impact.

The play's highlight is also Darrow's best known case: the Scopes trial, in which he defended a Tennessee teacher charged with teaching evolution. Morella portrays Darrow, the prosecution's lawyer William Jennings Bryan, and John Scopes in this segment. By giving Darrow someone to play against, his way with words and ability to think on his feet comes to the fore.

Unable to call any experts on evolution, Darrow called his opposing counsel as an expert on the Bible. During the examination, Bryan huffed, "I don't think about things I don't think about." "Do you think about things you do think about?" Darrow shoots back. At the end of the scene, Darrow says confidently, "Today, no state in the union would consider banning teaching evolution." That statement got the night's biggest laugh and showed how little things have changed.

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