Review: The Murder Trial of John Gordon at the Park Theatre

Trial from another era
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  January 18, 2011

Who knew? Everybody knows about that frisky, independent start by Roger Williams, and the first bloodshed of the American Revolution with the burning of the Gaspee, but who knows about the dispute between the lowly immigrant Gordon family and the prestigious Spragues, which resulted in the last state execution in Rhode Island, back in 1845?

To edify you, The Murder Trial of John Gordon, written by Cranston resident Ken Dooley, is being staged at the Park Theatre, in the Rhode Island Center for the Performing Arts (through February 27), directed by Dooley and Pamela Lambert. The events of the play took place less than a mile from the theater.

Don't assume that Gordon was convicted or that a second plausible suspect uncovered during the trial, despite prosecutorial efforts otherwise, might not have done the deed. Without some suspense over whodunit, this play would come across more like a 2-1/2 hour history pageant than the 19th-century Perry Mason mystery that it resembled at the time.

It was a tale of class conflict between Irish immigrants and the Yankee establishment that, with its dimension of quasi-aristocratic entitlement, trumped the later Sacco-Vanzetti trial that involved Italian immigrants in the 1920s.

Unfortunately, in this play the actual murder occurs behind the arras, in the Shakespearean tradition, instead of, say, opening with the shadowy crime played out behind a scrim. Rather, things begin with a cultural stereotype, in a pub in Ireland with drunken revelers exchanging far too many witless toasts among the clever ones. We are introduced to the three Gordon boys, John (Kyle Blanchette), Nicholas (Colin Turtle), and William (Jeff Phillips).

We could have plunged right in with a character we soon meet as a courthouse janitor, Ryan Murphy (Michael Healy), framing the proceedings, since he amiably narrates, fills us in after time gaps, and concludes the story. Otherwise the structure is sensible, if unnecessarily chronological (give me a good flashback to suspensefully pause a revelation anytime). Act One briskly proceeds with 10 five-minute scenes before the initial courtroom drama of 20 minutes or so. The second half is somewhat bogged down by unavoidable courtroom proceedings, presumably relying on the trial transcript and committed to verisimilitude, but the final half-dozen short scenes barrel along, although they introduce some plot twists that are not fully resolved, as they also weren't at the time.

Nicholas Gordon, the older brother, had a general store near one of the mills run by Amasa Sprague (Mark Gentsch). The eventual sale of liquor there proves so profitable that he was able to bring his mother and two brothers from Ireland. But another result is that so many drunken mill workers began to be late or absent that Amasa complained and had the liquor license withdrawn. Vendettas have resulted from less.

The body of Amasa Sprague was found, with his face beaten in and a bullet in an arm, with neither watch nor money removed. An apparently bloody overcoat was found buried in snow near the crime scene. The case seemed strong against John and his brother William — brother Nicholas had an alibi for the time of the murder but was to be tried later for conspiracy.

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