Joseph Rodota’s cogent new drama “Chessman” might just as easily be called “Brown,” though it would not evoke nearly as much curiosity.
Caryl Chessman was the San Quentin death row inmate controversially sentenced to execution after being convicted of a series of robberies, kidnappings and rapes. Pat Brown was the governor of California at the time, charged with adjudicating Chessman’s clemency appeals, and Brown’s conflicted personal deliberations on enforcing capital punishment in the matter are at the heart of the play.
The case attracted worldwide attention at the time (the crimes were committed in 1948, and Chessman was eventually executed in the San Quentin gas chamber on May 2, 1960). A special limited-run world premiere of the work is now at the B Street Theatre through Saturday, Oct. 22.
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There are abundant local hooks in Rodota’s telling of the incident. The playwright is a longtime Sacramento-based political consultant who served as a senior adviser to Govs. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger and was also an aide in the Reagan White House. Much of the play takes place in the Governor’s Mansion and Brown’s state Capitol office, with Brown’s well-known family – wife Bernice, daughter Kathleen and son Jerry – playing significant roles.
The central figure, though, is the thoughtful, understated governor, superbly played by Phil Cowan. As Brown, Cowan exudes both moral decency and grave respect for the duties of his position. He’s caught between his personal opposition to the death penalty, supported by much of the public, and the law he’s sworn to uphold. (Chessman was convicted and sentenced under a statute repealed but not retroactively applied to him.)
Chessman himself comes off as an ambiguous cypher in Eason Donner’s fine portrayal of the clever, manipulative criminal. Chessman’s eloquent letters appealing for clemency cause Brown to pause and actually consider the petition even as he knows how useless it will be. During his 12 years on death row, Chessman, acting as his own attorney, filed numerous appeals that postponed eight execution deadlines. He also published four books, one of which – “Cell 2455, Death Row” – was made into a 1955 feature film. The publicity Chessman generated for his cause made Brown’s decisions on the case the most high-profile deliberations of his substantial political career.
Using a substantial amount of historical documentation, Rodata creates a conventional domestic drama set in the Brown household while also engaging the audience in the mystique of Chessman’s writings, observations and personality. We see one of the crimes against 17-year-old Mary Alice Meza (Fiona Robberson) – take place though it’s curiously conflated with the somewhat less violent assault of Regina Johnson. We also see Meza’s ghastly cross-examination by Chessman at trial.
In both cases, Chessman dragged a young woman from another car to his own, where the sexual assaults took place. These aspects of Chessman’s case were the basis of the state’s application of the death penalty. Chessman continually claimed his innocence of the crimes.
Director Buck Busfield lets the realistic drama unfold with a smooth fluidity. There’s fine support for the two principals from Elisabeth Nunziato as both Bernice Brown and Chessman’s mother, Hallie. Nik Duggan plays the young Jerry Brown, slipping away from the Jesuit monastery while glimpsing the complex lattice of politics, the family business he would soon enough embrace.
What: B Street Theatre world premiere of Joseph Rodata’s drama with Phil Cowan, Eason Donner, and Elisabeth Nunziato. Buck Busfield directs.
Where: B Street Theatre, B2 Stage, 2711 B St., Sacramento
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays–Fridays; 8 p.m. Saturdays through Saturday, Oct. 22.
Information: 916-443-5300; bstreettheatre.org
Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, including one intermission