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A LEGAL MATTER Kelly and Broccoli.

To better convey the look and feel of the sanity hearing portrayed, the production is being staged in the courtroom setting of the historic Bristol Statehouse. It's being directed with agility by Mark Peckham.

The fictional case study is that of Claudia Draper (Amber Kelly), a big city call girl facing a manslaughter charge for killing a client — in self-defense, she contends. What is called into question is not her justification for the homicide — that would get look into in a criminal trial — but rather the question of her sanity. The ease with which the state can designate a person crazy gets examined, as does the thoughtless manner with which we often dismiss society's outliers as social misfits.

The guiding conflict here is the psychological battle between the accused Draper and the psychiatrist who has designated her as a paranoid schizophrenic. Since the shrink, Dr. Rosenthal (Paula Faber), comes across as an arrogant megalomaniac, she's a facile villain, and arguably the play is weakened by the "victim" not facing a worthy adversary. On the other hand, any number of similar bureaucratic bullies probably could be cited from actual trial transcripts. The trouble with complaining about stereotypes is that by definition they depict types that are all too common.

Dr. Rosenthal based her judgment on a 15-minute interview, asking stock questions and taking sarcastic answers as literal, such as Draper's complaint that the pacifying drug Thorazine was poisoning her.

Overseeing things is the relaxed but authoritative Judge Murdoch, perfectly cast with the avuncular Walter Cotter. Since this is a hearing and not a trial, it's reasonable that the judge would let witnesses range around the courtroom, even permitting the defendant to sit on his desk, as director Peckham opens up the action. Prosecuting attorney Franklin Macmillan (Vince Petronio) is pitted against defense attorney Aaron Levinsky (Kevin Broccoli), who gets only limited cooperation from his strong-minded client.

Draper's parents also play a large part in the hearing, as they did in developing her disturbed, though not obviously psychotic, psychological makeup. Her mother, Rose Kirk (Lynne Collinson), gives every indication of being a loving parent, but she fell short in placing her marriage ahead of parental responsibility and even common sense. That's because her husband, Arthur (Eric Behr), grew much too fond of his stepdaughter. Interestingly, he isn't painted as a scheming potential pederast but rather as a weak man who rationalizes his dark impulses as harmless. Behr is terrific in the role, which grows in emotionalism from self-justification to hysteria. He even plausibly handles an unrealistic monologue in which the man supposedly doesn't realize how much he's revealing about himself.

But of course the star of the proceedings is Draper herself, played with charismatic vitality by Amber Kelly. We don't hear much from her until the second act, seeing only a person masking her frustration with bemusement as she watches the proceedings unfold. Much of the bias about Amber possibly being insane has to do with her not being a common crack whore but rather the product of a nice, white, upper-middle-class Westchester family. The unspoken assumption is that if she is not deranged, then conventional society itself might be.

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