BWW Reviews: SNIPER'S NEST Gives Interesting But Implausible Glimpse of Lee Harvey Oswald
Ever heard of Judyth Vary Baker? If you're an expert on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, you may know of her, but even then she's probably an obscure footnote in the pages of merely a handful of books written about the topic. Baker claims to have had an affair with Lee Harvey Oswald and has written a book, Me & Lee, based on her time with him. Still, there are lots of people who doubt her story. If you haven't heard of her, Google her right now. You'll find more than a few websites that question whether or not her story is true. Baker's version of events is more far-fetched than the many conspiracy theories that surround Kennedy's assassination. Still, there's something about The Sniper's Next, a theatrical reinterpretation of Me & Lee, that is compelling and engaging despite the major implausibilities.
The two-character play by Lisa Soland shows the audience brief vignettes and episodes in the relationship between Judyth Baker (Katy Wicker) and Lee Harvey Oswald (Zac Thomas). The two immediately find themselves drawn to one another and become involved in a plot to murder Fidel Castro. As a cancer researcher, Baker helps the CIA develop a biochemical which, if injected into Castro, would give him a cancer which would kill him within 28 days. Oswald's role in the plot to assassinate Castro is to ensure that the toxin falls into the right hands. Needless to say, it doesn't, and somehow (something never truly explained in the play or, by my research, in Baker's memoir for that matter), the CIA decides to assassinate Kennedy instead.
That's where the major plot holes lie. I'm not exactly trusting of our CIA, but I doubt even they have the bloodlust required to kill the President simply because their plans against their initial target fell through. Also, it's tough to believe that Plan A would be as elaborate, time consuming, and expensive as developing and delivering a biotoxin, but Plan B would involve just shooting Kennedy in the head. Isn't Plan B easier and more effective? Wouldn't it be just as easy to shoot Castro? Baker's account requires more suspension of disbelief than any other Kennedy conspiracy theory I've heard before, and Soland's script makes it even more challenging to accept Baker's story. The text doesn't quite know what it wants to be. Is it a historical drama? A romance? An espionage thriller? It tries to be everything, but without focus and clarity, Soland's script falls short.
That's not to say there isn't anything good about The Sniper's Nest. Regardless of the problems of the source material and the text, Zac Thomas's performance is more than worth the price of a ticket. The recent Austin transplant is sure to become a fixture within the local theater community. His take on Oswald is a bit dangerous, incredibly smart, and completely honest. His Oswald is a man who always believes he's doing the right thing, even if he has to break the law to do it. Until the very end, he actually believes he is defending and protecting Kennedy (one of the few unlikelihoods the production is able to sell). Whatever your opinion of Oswald is, Thomas's portrayal will make you question everything you've thought about one of modern history's most notorious and mysterious characters.
Katy Wicker gives a sturdy performance as Judyth Baker, but she doesn't achieve the same success. That said, the cards are stacked against her from the beginning. Her character simply isn't as interesting as Lee Harvey Oswald, and there are some aspects of her that are tough to swallow. When she discovers early on that Oswald beats his wife, she's disgusted but still decides to stay with him. Throughout, she's played innocently despite being part of top-secret plots to kill American enemies. She even breaks down when she discovers that one of her test cases died from the toxin she created. If the real-life Baker's story is true, then she deserves some responsibility. She may not have known everything about what she was getting into with Lee, both personally and professionally, but she had to know it wasn't going to be pretty. Instead, the play allows Baker to remain unscathed by her involvement with Oswald and the CIA.
Though I haven't read Baker's book, I'd like to present my own conspiracy theory. I imagine there must be some amount of self-preservation in Me & Lee, and that's somewhat understandable. If I was Baker, I'd want to do everything I could to prevent myself from taking any responsibility for my involvement in a series of events that ended in the murder of the President. If I'm correct in the assumption that Baker has twisted and bended the truth, if there is any to be found in her book, that has carried forward into Soland's play. As such, we never get a full or believable picture of Judyth Baker. Wicker does a fantastic job at playing her as pure and harmless, but the writing never allows the character to feel authentic.
We've all been told that the stranger a story may be, the greater the likelihood that it's true. Yes, strange stories are often true, but often they're not. I have my suspicions that this strange story is more fiction than reality, but even the craziest of conspiracy theories is deserving of some attention, even if just for entertainment's sake.
THE SNIPER'S NEST, produced by Last Act Theatre, closes at Brave New Books (1904 Guadalupe St Ste B) tonight 2/2 at 7pm. Tickets are $15. For tickets and information, visit www.lastacttheater.com.