by SOPHIE KERMAN
“If you lose the power to laugh, you lose the power to think.” — Clarence Darrow
If you grew up in a radical left-wing household – or if you’ve been to law school – you’ve probably heard of Clarence Darrow, the famed defense attorney whose messy personal life didn’t interfere with saving 102 individuals from the death penalty and fighting for a man’s right to teach the theory of evolution. With unwavering ideological convictions and an unstoppable dry wit, Darrow could be seen as a champion of the underdog and a hero for civil liberties. As we see in Naked Darrow, however, he was much more than simply a string of high-profile legal battles.
The play takes place towards the end of Darrow’s life, when he suffered from dementia/Alzheimer’s disease (though it was not recognized as such in 1937). Gary Anderson, who both wrote and performs Naked Darrow, based the script on extensive research from Darrow’s autobiography, conversations with his descendants, and interactions with two gentlemen suffering from dementia/Alzheimer’s. The result is not just a biography of Clarence Darrow: it is an intense and moving portrait of a man seeking to find meaning in a life that he only partially remembers.
Naked Darrow premiered in 2011 at the Park Square Theatre; Anderson has also performed the play Off Broadway, played the role of Darrow in a PBS documentary (Assassination: Idaho’s Trial of the Century) and serves as CEO of the Clarence Darrow Foundation, promoting public service and pro bono law. In other words, if anyone knows Darrow – if anyone could be Darrow – it is Gary Anderson. He does the job marvelously, transitioning seamlessly from Darrow’s plain-speaking charisma as a public figure, to his flaws as a man with an alcohol problem, to his desperate struggle to fight off dementia. And he does it all without losing the wry humor and moral compass that made Darrow such a celebrity in his own day.
Anderson is so interesting to watch that you might lose track of the show’s technical details, but Dean Holzman‘s set, with separate areas for a desk and a podium, adds a welcome visual flow that helps with the pace of the 90-minute show. Jon Carlson‘s projections of old photographs help to place the audience in the right time period, although they do not feel essential to the drama. Same thing for the original music by Rich McKinney and sound by Michael Keck: they add some emotional nuance and variety to the pace of the play, but occasionally seem out of place when Anderson’s monologue works so well on its own.
Because the language and acting in Naked Darrow are so effective, it seems fair to warn you of a few triggers: there is an extremely vivid description of a brutal lynching which may be distressing to some audience members. Viewers with loved ones suffering from dementia/Alzheimer’s may also be deeply affected by Anderson’s portrayal of Darrow’s less lucid moments.
Despite – or perhaps because of – these more harrowing scenes, Naked Darrow is more than a biopic. For that, you could turn on the History Channel or order Inherit the Wind from Netflix. What makes this play worth leaving the house for is Anderson’s portrayal of a man piecing together his life. The show really could be about anyone with dementia, but the fact that it’s Darrow adds a dimension to the character’s struggles with his fading memory that is both politically and emotionally powerful. In Darrow’s own words, “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for” – and this is certainly a fight worth seeing.