Theater Review - Conspiracy theory

Frame 312 equates national denial with family dysfunction

In Keith Reddin's Frame 312, a suburban widow describes the Zapruder film as "the most famous snuff film in history." Having its American premiere on the Alliance mainstage, Frame 312 evokes the chilling iconography of the famed 22-second home movie of John F. Kennedy's assassination. It's been reported that some Americans erroneously remember themselves as having seen the footage of the shooting live on television. In fact, the film was first televised in 1975, but the misapprehension speaks to how vividly the images live in a country's collective psyche.

Frame 312 attempts not to dramatize the assassination or to concoct a fresh conspiracy but to look at the effects on the American public, both at the moment and over time. It's exciting to see the play engage with such a huge and potent theme, and a little disappointing that it doesn't delve as deeply as it could.

Frame 312 opens on a deceptively tranquil backyard barbecue to celebrate the birthday of Lynette (Linda Stephens). Her grown children bring distress as much as comfort: acerbic daughter Stephanie (Susan Pourfar) blurts that she's on antidepressants, while mercurial son Tom (Greg Stuhr) looks to his mother for help when he overreaches financially.

When Tom mentions that he visited Dallas' Kennedy Museum on a business trip, Lynette announces that she has a connection to the assassination that she's never revealed. Flashbacks show that in the early 1960s Lynette (now played by Rebecca Harris) worked as a secretary for Life magazine. The publication purchased Abraham Zapruder's home movie almost immediately after the shooting, and Lynette and Graham (Jim Peck), the magazine's editor, were among the first to see it.

Lynette is horrified to see the record of the president's grisly injuries and argues that the magazine shouldn't publish any images from the film. The ensuing discussion echoes the recent debate over how explicit the televised coverage of the World Trade Center attack should have been. But when the clip fails to match the official story that Oswald acted alone, Lynette grows increasingly alarmed at its implications.

Tom and Stephanie are nonplussed at the hidden chapter in their mother's life, and even more shocked when she drops a bombshell about the Zapruder film that has immediate consequences.

Frame 312's flashbacks frequently feel like a contemporary writer's idea of the 1960s rather than a lived-in account of the era itself. When Lynette travels to and from the nation's capital to hand-deliver the film to J. Edgar Hoover, she comes across like a modern-day paranoid, leaping to the suspicion that she could be made to disappear for knowing too much. Lynette's anxieties do provide for some of the play's most compelling scenes, as when she quizzes a G-man over his credentials.

Directed by Alliance artistic director Susan V. Booth, the production makes a sharp contrast between the 1960s and the present scenes. The flashbacks feature so many angular shadows and clothes with drab, monochromatic colors that they overtly resemble black-and-white movie footage. That staging plants a seed in the audience's mind that the 1960s scenes may not be real, making us skeptical of Lynette's reliability as an eyewitness.

The play's subtext places the dysfunction at the heart of the American family at the foot of Kennedy's murder — or, more specifically, at our reluctance to face the idea that the Warren Commission's version of events is false. Reddin suggests that Americans suffer a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder on a national scale, dealing with shock by seeking safety in the suburbs, to the detriment of our character.

Reddin proves so good at illustrating the dislocating effects of the assassination that he undermines the play's own themes. It's one of the most chaotic, "messy" events of modern history, yet Frame 312's equation of national denial and family dysfunction feels a little too neat and orderly. Certainly Stephanie and Tom's problems seem unexceptional.

Stephens and Harris are well cast as the same woman at different times in her life, and each actress is careful not to make Lynette a crusading, larger-than-life figure: Both show that Lynette's tragic flaw was her refusal to answer history's call. Despite the seriousness of the material, Peck and Pourfar bring fine comic timing to their portrayals.

In fact, Pourfar's presence makes Frame 312 an odd experience to anyone who saw the Alliance's Proof in the spring. Booth directed both productions, which feature Pourfar as a neurotic daughter, butting heads with a "responsible" sibling. Both take place on the main character's birthday on a placid back yard. Both build to a major revelation in the first act's last line, and devote much of the second act to debating the Big Secret's implications and authenticity.

Frame 312 and Proof share cosmetic similarities and parallel ideas about troubled family dynamics, but the closeness of their staging is probably a coincidence. Unless it's some kind of conspiracy ...