Theater Review - Synchronicity's 1:23 Medea blitz

Synchronicity Performance Group presents a different kind of murder mystery with its production of 1:23.

Playwright Carson Kreitzer's drama draws on elements of police procedurals like "Law & Order" in its investigation of the crimes of Susan Smith and two other notorious mothers who killed their children. In 1:23, we know whodunit, so the more pressing question becomes, "Why did they do it?" Kreitzer's script finds clues in official records, urban legends and Latin-American folklore, placing the killings in complex, almost baffling cultural and psychological contexts.

Synchronicity Performance Group specializes in plays that address female-oriented subject matter by women artists. Few themes prove as big or challenging as the ones raised in 1:23. If anything, the play's ambition nearly overleaps itself in its attempt to address too many ideas in too limited a time. 1:23 serves as a harrowing thematic symphony that can be overly pretentious and opaque, yet also builds to some genuine revelations.

The action cuts back and forth between statements by Andrea Yates (Dori Garziano) in Houston and Susan Smith (Rachel Garner) in South Carolina, although they could almost be in the same precinct house. Detective McManus (Daniel Thomas May) takes Yates' statement in an interrogation room, while in other offices, Smith reflects on her life and makes the claim that an African-American carjacker kidnapped her two sons. (A claim fictionalized in the novel and film Freedomland.)

Additional threads include Detective Stevens (Mark Gray), a senior police officer who interacts with Smith but primarily delivers monologues about the toll that witnessing such horrors exacts on law enforcement officers. Meanwhile, two women speaking Spanish (both played by Suehyla El-Attar), one in contemporary clothes, the other in a traditional costume, drift through the back of the performance space.

If that weren't enough, Kreitzer seizes on the notion of Smith's imaginary carjacker to craft an African-American boogeyman character (Theroun Patterson) who sneers at the audience with vivid menace. Through his hyperbolic speeches about the "white baby black market," the carjacker makes white racial anxieties flesh. He also turns prejudices upside down by recounting word-of-mouth tales about police shooting black boys with toy guns, offering an almost magical realism perspective on urban racial tension. Theroun gives one of 1:23's most memorable performances, but the character seems to have stepped from another play entirely.

Symbolism and staccato chronology clearly fascinate Kreitzer. In her celebrated script The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, produced by Actor's Express in 2005, the famed physicist doesn't just recount the creation of the atomic bomb and other major events of his life. He also has dialogues with a ghostly demonic female who serves as both Lilith from Hebrew mythology and the spirit of atomic energy, or something like that. In 1:23, Kreitzer bites off many intriguing ideas, but the play's 75-minute running time doesn't give the production enough time to digest them all.

You might sigh at the repeated, recurring lines of untranslated Spanish, but 1:23 packs a punch when it finally explains the history of the mournful ghost called La Llorona, and draws a connection to Juana Leija, a less-familiar case from the late 1980s. 1:23 also concludes with an image that's both so simple and so unexpected it surprises and helps justify the enigmas that take up most of the play's running time.

Garner captures Smith's wrenching guilt and fake concern for the children she knows are already dead. The script stints on many details about Smith's family and personal situation, however, so the character proves elusive. In an unfortunate staging decision, the production puts Garner's most potentially intriguing piece of acting — Smith's televised appeal to the "carjacker" — on a standard-sized TV screen in a corner of space. It's hard to see Garner's nuances of expression if you happen to be on the opposite end of the theater. At the other extreme, Yates' penchant for reciting biblical verses (all from chapter 1, verse 23 of different scriptures) is blown up huge with a video projection, even though the character's religious mania needs little embellishment.

Yates' interrogation scenes are the production's most powerful aspects, yet the least reliant on meta-theatrical gimmickry. The exchanges between May's cop and Garziano's suspect describe the fate of Yates' five children in simple yet monstrous details, one after the other, to devastating effect. Garziano, who recently played multiple comedic roles at the Alliance Theatre's Smart Cookie, crafts a chilling portrait of Yates. Behind a pair of glasses, eyes kept in half-focus, she maintained a slack, masklike expression, as if some quality of her soul were absent. Husband of director Rachel May, Daniel May gradually tempers the officer's taciturn professionalism with subtle but increasing emotional turmoil at his discoveries. I wondered if 1:23 would be more effective if the entire running time was devoted to the dramatization of the transcript.

Kreitzer, director and cast seem to realize that there's no solution to the mysteries of why mothers like Yates commit such unspeakable crimes. You absorb volumes of family histories and psychological profiles, but the acts remains incomprehensible. At its best, 1:23 doesn't try to hold out pat answers, but conveys the depths to which such deeds are unknowable.

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