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A Sanity Hearing On Stage

Port City Playhouse Mounts "Nuts" at Lee Center

How do you prove you aren’t "nuts" when the charge is paranoia? If you claim your accusers are "out to get you" aren’t you just confirming their allegation?

That is the quandary facing the heroine of the 1979 play "Nuts," which Port City Playhouse is staging with Karen Jadlos Shotts as the accused paranoid and a superbly smooth Jeff Murray as her cannily easygoing lawyer.

The play, which was made into a movie in 1987 starring Barbra Streisand and Richard Dreyfuss in the roles now played by Shotts and Murray, is a courtroom drama that plays out in what director Donald Neal refers to as "real time" with few cuts in the action. The two hours of the play are basically equal to the two hours of the sanity hearing with a 15-minute intermission when the judge rather artificially announces a 15-minute recess.

While it is a full-out legal battle, it is not a full-out legal trial. Shott’s character is a prostitute who has been indicted for manslaughter for the killing of a customer but she’s been shunted off to New York’s Bellevue Hospital where the powers that be have determined she should not stand trial due to her paranoia. Instead, she should remain confined in the institution while they treat her. That confinement could well continue for as much as 17 years.

She prefers to have her day in court, taking her chances on the possibility of conviction (which might only get her six year’s in jail as opposed to 17 years in the hospital — and they say she’s the crazy one?). First, however, she needs to have the court reject the diagnosis of incapacitating paranoia and permit her to stand trial.

Her attorney proceeds to dismantle the arguments of the witnesses called by the state: her parents who testify to her childhood, and the hospital’s psychiatrist, played by Mario D. Font, in a marvelously meticulous performance.

The laying out of the case with the mechanical questioning by the state’s attorney, (Donnell Boykin who can’t do very much with such a blandly written role) and the amiable but devastating cross examination of Murray as her attorney, takes up the bulk of the first act with the findings of the psychiatrist effectively challenged and some sordid revelations from her childhood forced from her step-father (David James in a well modulated progression from self assurance to quivering hulk).

As a result of the structure of the play, Shotts hasn’t much to do in the first act and doesn’t come across as having much depth at all. Ah, but after intermission (or "recess" as Paul Boymel terms it in his role of the judge,) Shotts makes a fine impression as soon as the curtain parts for the second act. As she takes the stand on her own behalf, both the strength of her character’s character and the kernels of truth in the diagnosis come into play. Shotts resists the temptation to start off too strong. Instead, she uses humor and charm for the early parts of her big scene and then turns up the heat in carefully balanced measures. If the strength of the first act is Murray’s avuncular charm, Shott’s progressive passion is the primary pleasure of the second.

Director Neal has staged the action on a fairly predictable courtroom layout with tables for the prosecution and defense, a platform for the judge and the witness stand, chairs and a few flags. In an awkward arrangement, he faces all this toward the audience. As a result, both Murray and Boykin are forced to pace the stage trying to put questions to the witnesses without turning their backs on the audience.

Neal’s pacing and attention to detail, however, can’t be faulted. Most notably, he deserves kudos for the fact that everyone on stage who doesn’t have a line seems to be listening and reacting to the testimony that is being given. At one point, Shotts has a line about the psychiatrist's pencil and Font nervously pockets the pen he’s been playing with. It is a nice moment of realism in a thoroughly realistic rendition of an interesting play.

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Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.