KALAMAZOO — They were still in their teens, of high-intelligence and wealthy families, and should have had a bright future ahead of them.
“They were charming, witty, engaging, good-looking, and had a summer with nothing to do, so they decide to kill somebody just to see if they can get away with it,” D. Terry Williams said of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.
The Leopold and Loeb kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks was the original “crime of the century,” sparking a media frenzy in 1924. It inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film “Rope” and Richard Fleischer’s 1959 film “Compulsion.”
The movies didn’t cover all the details that are in “Never the Sinner,” however. Western Michigan University theater department emeritus Williams will direct it at the York Arena Theatre running Jan. 26 through Feb. 5.
John Logan based his 1985 play on years of research, sealed family archives and court transcripts, Williams said.
“To say that Leopold and Loeb were ‘monsters’ is too easy. To say that they were ‘evil’ is too facile,” Logan wrote in the introduction to the play. He chose to portray them as human beings, who are “tormented” and “brutal.
It’s a courtroom drama plus an intense character study. “I’ve always been fascinated by this play ... because of their complex personalities,” Williams said.
They were from wealthy Chicago families. Leopold, 19 at the time of the crime, had a genius-level IQ, was multi-lingual, published ornithology articles and was already attending the University of Chicago law school. Loeb, 18, was at the time the youngest graduate in the history of the University of Michigan.
Their relationship was complicated by a factor not covered in previous dramatizations. “They were lovers,” Williams said. “Leopold gets sex in return for collaborating in risky crimes dreamed up by Loeb.”
Enthralled by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the “superman” not ruled by society’s morals, they commit what they think is the perfect crime.
“They were very sophisticated — but not civilized,” Williams said.
Certain hanging awaited them at the end of their trial, but their lawyer, Clarence Darrow, turned the case into an argument against capital punishment.
The cast will sit among the audience until needed onstage. They are Max Rasmussen (Leopold), David Cooper (Loeb), Bill Zorn (Clarence Darrow), Ben Maters (Robert Crowe), Jenna Wyatt, Taylor Keenan and Sophie Scanlon.
It’s easy to be charmed by the characters of Leopold and Loeb, Williams said, “then you step back and say, my goodness, how can I like these two psychopaths?”
He brought in a consultant from the WMU psychology department, Lester Wright, “who has been very helpful to the cast in explaining these types of personalities.”
Wright helped the cast explore how such crimes can occur by comparing Leopold and Loeb’s to Jerry Sandusky’s alleged acts, Williams said.
What makes this compelling drama is its examination of criminals who commit heinous acts but feel justified “in their own world of rules and regulations,” Williams said.
If you go
‘Never the Sinner’
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 26-28, Feb. 2-4; 2 p.m. Feb. 5
Where: York Arena, Gilmore Theatre Complex, Western Michigan University
Cost: $20, $15 seniors and WMU faculty/staff, $5 students
Contact: 269-387-3227, wmutheatre.com