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Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
‘Execution’ a technical display

The ‘Twinkie Defense’ and the murder of Harvey Milk

By Leigh E. Rich

In the lingering aftermath of the Simpson trial, Emily Mann’s docu-drama “Execution of Justice” adds to the growing list of courtroom entertainment. Presented by the Arizona Repertory Theatre, this play not only places the judicial system, the media system and the medical system on trial but also produces a breathtaking multimedia event. Five television screens, an ongoing slide show of actual images of the 1978 trial, carefully chosen musical pieces, lighting gobos, a smoke machine, and the creative use of vertical theater space make this production a technical confection.

Mann’s script is based on the trial of Dan White, a San Francisco city supervisor who deliberately shot Mayor George Moscone and political rival, Supervisor Harvey Milk, in 1978. Milk was one of the country’s first openly gay elected officials, and his assassination incensed an already divided city. Mann uses excerpts from the actual trial to direct this two-hour tour of lawyer bantering. Although White confessed to the murders, he served only five years, one month and eight days—due to defense attorney Douglas Schmidt’s wily “Twinkie Defense.” Schmidt claimed that White’s political pressures, ensuing family problems, latent depression and the ingestion of junk foods diminished his capacity to reason. The use of this “diminished capacity” defense is widespread (present in both the Menendez and Susan Smith trials).

Director Brent Gibbs infuses this important and somewhat monotonous play with technical vitality. UA’s black-box theater transforms into a three-ring circus—the sideshow we deem justice, and Gibbs is the ringmaster. He has carefully engineered his theater space to create a courtroom engulfed by the vulture-like cravings of the televised media and the tenuous opinions of the public. The audience, seated in the jury box, views the action outside the court through a gray curtain smoke screen.

The audience is led through a fast-paced, visually overwhelming commentary concerning the rigmarole process of justice, the dangers of politics, and the deviousness of medicine. Hauntingly familiar phrases like “traditional American values” and “the all-American boy” are used in White’s defense. He was a veteran, a police officer, a fireman. He was decorated for saving lives. He was supported by San Francisco citizens who graffitied the city with the slogan “Free Dan White.”

Since “good people don’t kill people in cold blood,” White’s actions stood trial in an atmosphere polluted with forensic psychiatric dogma. Adam Slusser’s memorable cameo as Dr. Jones demonstrates the nebulous definitions and technicalities of concepts like malice, malice of forethought, premeditation and deliberation. And Ryan Nitz’s comically animated Dr. Lunde persuades us to believe that the consumption of junk food can precipitate antisocial behavior. The opinions of doctors become social fact, and the accused becomes the victim.

We are to believe that it’s not who was killed but why.

The main deficiency in this courtroom docu-drama is action, even though Gibbs’ tight and creative direction of the script is astounding. Since the audience is the jury, all of the action is recounted in several renditions of narratives by character witnesses, the lay public, and the lawyers themselves. This type of play in which the action is secondary to long monologues can work—as in Peter Shaffer’s “Equus” which is laden with Dr. Martin Dysart’s rambling psycho babble. It works, because the script is unique and unpredictable. In Mann’s play, however, the audience already knows the ending. We endure long-winded lawyer banter, which at times grows wearisome. If it didn’t, more people would look forward to jury duty.

With our society currently intrigued and, at times, obsessed with the inner-workings of the judicial system, “Execution of Justice” is a timely reflection of our doubts and misgivings. Issues debated in 1978 are still on the table today. The locus of responsibility resides with the common public. Perhaps we are to put aside our fear, anger and bigotry and rely solely on the facts. Of course, we must also choose whose “facts” to believe.

If you’re not O.J.’d-out, this play is well worth it—even for the MTV style, multimedia effects alone. And if you’ve been lucky enough to escape the Simpson trial frenzy, “Execution of Justice” will inspire similar doubts regarding our justice system, without dragging on too long. Despite such a realistic and socially daunting attitude of society and politics, even Harvey Milk was of the opinion that “It works. It works. The system works.”

Rich, L.E. (1995, October 26). ‘Execution’ a technical display. Arizona Daily Wildcat.

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