Murder in the First
The Breakthrough Theatre
Writtend by Dan Gordon
Directed by Wade Hair
Starring Michael Durand and Shay Bradford
Winter Park, FL
The consensus of the American public is “Make prison as miserable as possible, that’ll teach them.” Problem is, once you’re in, you can never leave no matter how well you learn your lesson. Willie Moore (Durand) stole $5 from a drugstore in the 1930’s; too bad that drugstore was also a small-town post office, so this was a federal crime. Once in the system, he found himself in solitary confinement for over 3 years, was rarely fed, regularly beaten, and broken. Then he killed a fellow prisoner, and now he’s on trial for his life in a system rigged against him. Idealistic Shay Bradford (Davidson) starts his own legal career defending Willie, and he’s going up against the system. The Judge (John Kelly) hates him, the opposing lawyer hates him, even his own brother hates him. His only support comes from his long-suffering girlfriend Mary (Chase Shelleé) and the Walter Winchell wannabee Houlihan (Gary Norris) who hopes to capitalize on the whole affair for his own career.
It’s a tough, cynical world these folks populate, and no quarter is given anywhere. The judge is against Willie, the lawyers hate him, and worst of all the government hates him as it wants Alcatraz to keep its reputation of “no one gets out alive.” There IS a good cloud of procedural stuff here, motions and “your honors” and a good bit of legal terminology fill the text. But despite that baggage this is a gripping, engaging story with some truly endearing characters in its center. Davidson Bradford won’t take no for an answer and bets his career on Willie even as Willie bets against him. Durand’s Willie is alternately confused, lost, and alone; at one point or another you will want to run onstage and give him a hug (don’t.) Norris’s Houlihan is as cynical as they come, but he has more insight into what motivates everyone else than Davidson could ever have. The small feminine element arises from Mary McCasslin (Britt Chase-Shelleé); the restriction placed on her by sex in those days were strict and immutable. There’s heart of gold in this tough edged drama, and the sharp cast keeps the story from bogging down in legalese. It’s sympathetic to the losers in life but does offer a slim hope of a better tomorrow.