Review: Perishable's emotionally transfixing 1:23

Crimes of the heart
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  April 19, 2011

TRAGIC TRIO Short, Peckham, and McMullen.
Two things about Carson Kreitzer's 1:23, which is getting a phenomenal production at Perishable Theatre (through May 7). One, it's not a dry, just-the-facts-ma'am recital, a 60 Minutes segment with dramatic lighting. Two, you should not be put off by its subject matter, or you will miss perhaps the most emotionally transfixing theater production of the season, directed with economy and precision by Rachel Walshe.

The subject is mothers who murder their children. The means of keeping us from averting our eyes is spot-on casting, transparent acting, and writing that is both guileless and skillfully structured. Clocking in at just over an hour, this play takes its own time and then ends. Just like life. And as with life, we exit profoundly changed.

Although 1:23 accomplishes far more than a docudrama, it does adhere strictly to two prominent cases, even drawing word-for-word from court and police transcripts. Who can forget the TV news footage of Susan Smith tearfully begging the black carjacker who stole her children to return them to her? That's as hard to forget as the subsequent footage of the car they were trapped in being towed out of the lake she rolled it into. And then there was Andrea Yates, in the news a few years later for drowning her five children in her bathtub.

Susan Smith (Julia Short) is being questioned in the police station by a kindly veteran detective named Stevens (Mark Peckham). Across the stage, which is bracketed by several glowing TV screens, Yates (D'Arcy Dersham) is being interrogated in a professional but slightly hostile manner by Det. McManus (Josh Short). She has already confessed to the killings, calling the police as well as her husband after the deed was done. Monotoned and dead-faced, Yates occasionally recites one of the Bible verses that taught her what a hellbound evildoer she was, her children similarly fated once past their innocent years (the oldest was seven).

Two other characters come into play, separate from but interweaving with the factual accounting, binding this all into a conceptual whole. LaToya Hall is both La Llorona, the weeping woman from Latin American history who drowned her children in order to be with her lover, and Juana, who killed two of her children in an attempted suicide and is left wandering about staring into her cupped hands, in which she imagines she is holding and protecting her children, muttering in Spanish, telling her story.

Translating some of this for us at one point is an African-American man, billed as Carjacker (played with deft humor by Malik McMullen), who comments on the rest of the play. He is everything from the Angel of Death to the archetypal criminal-class black man blamed for far more than he has time for or interest in, commenting wryly on this social function.

As Susan Smith, Short's childlike face and manner, so similar to Smith's in those regards, go far in pulling us into the temporary reality of the play. Smith, sexually abused as a child, as is common in these cases, had intended to die with her children, but her body resisted and she escaped the car as she could not escape her self-loathing.

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