‘Winterset’ a tale of guilt, innocence and justice denied

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Kiayla Ryann plays Miriamne and Mauric Demus plays Mio in the Griffin Theatre production of Maxwell Anderson’s “Winterset.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Before anything can be said about Griffin Theatre’s ambitious production of Maxwell Anderson’s rarely revived 1935 play, “Winterset,” a bit of background about the case of Sacco and Vanzetti — often seen as an example of the American justice system at its most flawed and prejudicial — is essential.

‘WINTERSET’ Recommended When: Through Dec. 23 Where: Griffin Theatre at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Tickets: $36 Info: http://www.griffintheatre.com Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with two intermissions

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian-American anarchists and immigrants who were convicted of murdering a guard and a paymaster during the armed robbery of a Massachusetts shoe company in 1920. Their case attracted international attention, for despite appeals in which recanted testimony, conflicting ballistics evidence, a prejudicial pre-trial statement by the jury foreman, and a confession by an alleged participant in the robbery all suggested the accused men were innocent, the two were sent to the electric chair. The question at hand: Did the social and political prejudices of the time result in the miscarriage of justice?

Christopher Acevedo (from left), Kiayla Ryann, Norm Woodel, Bradford Stevens and Josh Odor in the Griffin Theatre production of “Winterset.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Christopher Acevedo (from left), Kiayla Ryann, Norm Woodel, Bradford Stevens and Josh Odor in the Griffin Theatre production of “Winterset.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Though inspired by the case, Anderson’s 1935 play-in-verse (which won the first ever New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award), is certainly no documentary-style recounting of the story. Rather, it is a poetic, philosophical, psychological riff on the incident — a drama deeply rooted in the Depression era mentality in which Anderson was living, and evocative of a time during which the whole nature of American life was being questioned. Any similarities to our own era are by no means incidental either in the choice of material or the diverse casting here, even if the language of the play is somewhat antiquated and melodramatic in tone.

Jonathan Berry, a director renowned for tackling “difficult plays,” certainly had his work cut out for him with “Winterset.” Anderson’s drama is not easy to follow at the start, and often feels overly contrived. And while it contains some of the same notions to be found in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” it is far more convoluted.  Yet for all its imperfections, there is something here that ends up tugging at your soul, and Berry’s fervent cast grabs hold of the play’s characters, and all their twisted loyalties, with impressive conviction.

To be sure, an air of noirish menace envelops the story from the start as the truly guilty Trock (a perfectly thuggish Josh Odor), just released from prison, and his companion, Shadow (stylishly cool Bradford Stevens), knock on the door of the New York tenement apartment inhabited by an elderly Jew, Esdras (Norm Woodel in Old World rabbinical form), his innocent teenage daughter, Miramne (the exquisite Kiayla Ryann, who makes both innocence and knowingness palpable), and her brother, Garth (Christopher Acevedo), an aspiring fiddler who was a crucial witness (if not a full accessory) to the murder, but one whose testimony was never taken.

Although Trock served time, another man was electrocuted for the murder that occurred a decade or more earlier. And now, not only is a professor attempting to re-open the case, but Judge Gaunt (Larry Baldacci in a scorching portrayal of a man who is guilty in a “professional” way), who presided over the trial at which a man named Romagna was convicted and executed, is said to be mad, and roaming the country in an attempt to reclaim his reputation. Also roaming the country is Mio (the reed-thin, charismatic Maurice Demus), the tormented son of Romagna, who is hellbent on clearing his father’s name. Demus, very much a Tom Joad sort of character, makes Anderson’s most stylized locutions sound colloquial. And the chemistry between him and Ryann is beautifully limned.

Mio just happens to meet Miramne on the street and the two are immediately attracted in the way of all star-crossed lovers. As events unfold, both are torn between their loyalties to the people they love (Miriamne wants to protect her brother, while Mio wants to absolve his father without hurting Miriamne, whose father sees the world through the principles of Judaic law). Along the way, there is police brutality (by an Irish immigrant who, as Anderson reminds us, also has experienced prejudice). So there is plenty of ambivalence on all fronts. And, as one character puts it, “justice is a blind snake.”

Joe Schermoly’s superb set of brick walls and heavy pipes (enhanced by Alexander Ridgers’ lighting and  Bradford Chapin’s sound), puts us right on the edge of the East River, with Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes emblematic of the period.

Without question this three-act production can be rough going at times. But sometimes attention should be paid to a play of historic significance, no matter how flawed it might be. And “Winterset” is a case in point.

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