Grilling JFK's Killer
Nobody wrote down what Lee Harvey Oswald said during the many hours he sat under interrogation in the office of Dallas police Captain Will Fritz on November 22, 23 and 24, 1963. Nobody turned on a tape recorder or called in a stenographer. So most of what playwright Dennis Richard uses for dialogue in his drama Oswald: The Actual Interrogation isn't 100 percent "actual." At best it's actual adjacent. Richard employed many sources for his script, including seven pages of notes Fritz wrote up later and presented to the Warren Commission. But there is no word-for-word account of what Fritz and Oswald said to each other about the latter's involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Does any of that matter in a play based on historical events? Only if you take "actual" to mean "factual." And only if you're expecting Oswald to be some kind of re-enacted transcript, which it isn't.
What it is, however, is a well-cast, polished production of an absorbing two hours of theater. Fort Worth's Casa Mañana has staged the regional premiere of Richard's play, directed by Casey Hushion. The two main characters are played by good New York imports Ben Williams (Oswald) and Ed Dixon (Fritz). They lead the all-male supporting cast of top local actors — Montgomery Sutton, Paul T. Taylor, Bill Jenkins, Bob Hess, Bob Reed, Brian Mathis — who have multiple roles as cops, FBI agents and reporters.
The play is paced to ratchet up tension as it keeps the focus solely on the questioning of Oswald, with occasional hints at the chaos erupting outside Fritz's office at police headquarters. Act one begins after the killing of Kennedy and the murder of police officer J.D. Tippit. There's only one suspect, a wiry 24-year-old employee of the Texas School Book Depository. His wallet, containing IDs and photos, has been found next to the dead policeman on an Oak Cliff street. Within two hours of JFK's death, Lee Harvey Oswald is in custody, sweating through a thin white T-shirt, wrists cuffed behind his back.
As Fritz urges Oswald to confess, Jack Ruby's on the phone asking if he can drop off sandwiches and Cokes, and hundreds of reporters are hounding for access. Cops parade Oswald before cameras and radio microphones, which now seems bizarre and dangerous. Richard includes that scene in his play. Actor Williams has done his homework, eerily mimicking Oswald's clipped consonants and curt attitude as he tells reporters he's an innocent "patsy."
What unfolds in the second act is a confounding but engrossing cat-and-mouse game, with a frustrated Fritz trying to break down the tightly wound Oswald. "You ever been to Cuba?" asks Fritz again and again. "Were you a Marine?" Oswald doesn't answer. He asks repeatedly for a lawyer. Fritz tells him to look for one in the Dallas phonebook. These were the days before the mandatory Miranda warnings, which went into effect in 1966. Oswald never gets a lawyer. A judge pops in to arraign him, not in a courtroom but right in Fritz's office. Confusion reigns, particularly about arrangements for getting Oswald transferred to the county jail. We know how that turned out.
Oswald: The Actual Interrogation is a small, taut play about a gigantic tragedy. It shorthands what really happened and takes creative license, but so what? It's not a documentary. Only two things mar an otherwise slick production at Casa Mañana. Such an intimate play in such an enormous space means any small moments between the fine leading actors are swallowed up. It's like watching Waiting for Godot in Madison Square Garden. Also, the musical epilogue that has singers in the audience standing for an "impromptu" rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," a sequence added for the Casa production, is so weird it feels like a tacked-on apology for the content of the play itself. It's also unnecessary.
"It's just a comedy is what it is," said the man seated behind me at the show on opening night. Throughout the play, he kept up a running commentary about whether what was going on onstage was accurate. "That never happened," he said during a scene that had Fritz standing over the seated Oswald, yelling down on his head. "Fritz never raised his voice. He never came out from behind his desk." Yes, Jack Ruby phoned in, offering to bring food to the cops. No, the FBI never interrupted the interrogation. "Did not happen," said the patron.
"This is just entertainment. That's what this is," said the man, who turned out to be retired Dallas homicide detective Jim Leavelle. He's in his 90s now and came to the play with his grandson (we spoke at intermission).
Leavelle's face hasn't changed all that much from how he looked in 1963. If you've ever seen Bob Jackson's Pulitzer-winning photo of Ruby shooting Oswald, you'd recognize Leavelle. He's the tall man in the beige suit and light-colored hat leaning away from Oswald as Ruby lunged forward with his gun. Leavelle's left arm was handcuffed to Oswald's right arm at that moment.
"They got the suit right," Leavelle said of the one used on actor Bob Reed, who plays him at Casa Mañana. "And the boots."
Couldn't help myself. All during the play, whenever Leavelle made a comment, I wrote down what he said.
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