Terrorists attack a newspaper, politicians employ operatives to play tricks on their enemies, reactionaries use the courts to discredit science, and the legal system displays a distinct racial bias. While this litany of evils describes some all too familiar aspects of the 21st century, it’s actually taken from the plot of of Clarence Darrow, the marvelous one-man show playing through June 12 at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura. James O’Neil gives the performance of a lifetime as Darrow, animating his uncanny physical resemblance to Darrow (their great-grandfathers were first cousins) with crafty charm and immense vitality. David W. Rintel’s script, which premiered in New York in 1974 with no less than Henry Fonda in the role, remains a landmark achievement in writing for the solo actor. As our sense of Darrow deepens and evolves, the show moves ahead with the excitement and steady pacing of a well-made thriller. Because Darrow tried so many important cases in a period of rapid historical change, he was present at critical junctures for the biggest issues regarding justice in the United States. From segregation to union busting, from murder to terrorism, and from Chicago to Los Angeles and beyond, Darrow is there, making his client’s cases as though his own life depended on them. The result? At times it feels as though America itself is the play’s other main character.
Reversals of fortune, both in and out of the courtroom, come thick and fast, and Darrow is sometimes down, but never out. Certainly the thrill of hearing an unexpected winning verdict, and there are several, never palls. Fans of American history are sure to be fascinated by this version of such events as the Haymarket riots in Chicago, the Los Angeles Times bombing, and the Pullman Strike. Even the experts are likely to learn something new from Darrow’s unblinking scrutiny of human affairs, and everyone is sure to enjoy this extraordinarily satisfying work and performance.