BWW Review: YOU CAN'T DO THAT DAN MOODY Wins Its Case at the Georgetown Palace Theatre
The Georgetown Palace Theatre has teamed up with The Williamson Museum to mount a production of YOU CAN'T DO THAT DAN MOODY at the beautiful and historic Williamson County Courthouse. A story of the significant trial and ruling that resulted in the first conviction of KKK members for vigilante 'justice' in the country, this show is not only unfortunately timely but it is also an interesting and well formed evening of theater.
The story, which tells the tale of Dan Moody and his fight to secure justice for R.W. Burleson's beating in Taylor Texas at the hands of KKK members after they abducted him from his lodging in Weir in 1923, paints a picture of not only small town Texas life, but also of the diverse attitudes and people that laid the groundwork for our central Texas community. It is not an easy tale to watch, and it does not shy away from the graphic nature of the subject and, admirably, neither does this production downplay the violence nor the vitriolic anger and bigotry that begets it.
Leading this production is Palace Artistic Director Mary Ellen Butler. Using the actual courthouse to make this a site-specific piece of theater (I believe based on the dialogue in the show it was specifically written to be performed here), Butler takes a location that is not particularly conducive to theatrical performance and uses it to good effect. Despite limitations of entrances, lighting, and the challenge of permanent courthouse furniture that must be worked around, the show maintains a steady flow and adeptly tells the story as it switches between current events and flashbacks. There are a lot of very smart and savvy choices from her on display here including keeping actors onstage to fill the juror's box when not the focus of a scene and bringing ghost-like characters from flashbacks on slightly prior to their dialogue to allow them to view and silently comment on the proceedings. It is a shrewd and well-played hand because the dialogue in the play is often shocking in unexpected ways. For example, there is a surprisingly logical moment from the Grand Wizard in the Klan meeting who advocates against vigilante violence, and there are several outbursts of vehement anger from the victim that do not paint him in a perfect light, and so the use of these staging techniques allows her to build a show with a very clear, focused viewpoint on the material that could have too easily been confusing. In fact, considering all the hurdles faced to put the show in the location it actually happened, to have only one pause in the action (which was apparently for costume change purposes) is an admirable feat well managed.
Heading the cast are Jake Maspero as Dan Moody and Rob Sterk as an elder Governor Dan Moody many years later serving as our narrator. Both gentlemen give Moody a sense of earnestness and strongly ingrained morals and they compliment each other's performance quite well. It is easy to see how the younger Moody has grown into the more worldly, wiser elder version. Mr. Sterk gives a sense of calm gravitas to his older Moody, evoking a strong Southern air reminiscent of Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird. As our guide he is the backbone of the show and a permanent presence on stage, watching the proceedings unfold and leading us through the history of the events. Maspero, as the more lively age 29 Moody, is brimming with a need for justice and has a burning passion that drives him through the show. He does well as he orchestrates the trial, picking apart the defense, and showing the determination and drive required to win the uphill struggle he faced.
Also worthy of mention is Ismael Soto III as R.W. Burleson, the victim. He undoubtedly has the most difficult job in the show as he physically relives the trauma on stage each night while talking the audience through the proceedings. He skillfully maintains a strong narrative focus as he is beaten, harassed and ultimately left to die. He brings a flawed humanity to what could have easily been played as an angelic innocent victim which is a very wise and fulfilling choice, and he provides a solemn strength to the evening. He also sports a make-up based visual of the attack which, while impressive, can be distracting since it is a permanent part of his look. A simple switch of which side of the stage he is on in some of the flashback scenes would put the facade upstage and therefore be less distracting, but he makes do and physically alters his visage to indicate pre and post beating to good effect. Additional standouts include Dave Lovelace in the dual roles of Roy Smith, recruiter for the KKK, and James Hamilton, the judge at the trial, and Isaac Howell who brings a cool, calculated and despicably arrogant smarminess as A. A. Davis, a local reverend and Klansman who instigates the attack.
I also think it is particularly worthy of mention that with this show the Palace Theatre really shows itself as a true community theater, and I mean that in the most positive way. The Palace encourages all who wish to participate in coming together and putting on a performance for the community, and that doesn't just mean professional performers or people who went to school for theater, it means everyone from small children to the residents of Sun City. And they nurture and cultivate those who participate and help them grow. That was on display with this show in abundance as we got to watch several children in their educational program take part in the show, and several adults who mention in their program bios that they do not have much experience on stage but they were bringing wonderful differentiation and personality to multiple roles throughout the evening. It is in shows like this that the Palace proves how much of a Georgetown treasure it truly is.
The only drawbacks to the show are that the space is not acoustically built for this style of performance, so dialogue, especially in some of the more passionate scenes, can echo off walls and floor and become muddled in our ears. Also, the sheer length and depth of the beating does not lend itself to a clean, calculated piece of stage combat, but latches instead onto the raw, visceral rage of the atrocity. This can make the audience members uncomfortable or fear for the actors' safety since the seating is designed for a courtroom and not to give a unobstructed stage view like in the Palace proper. Nonetheless, we are able to follow the story with ease, utilize our willing suspension of disbelief, and enjoy the show.
YOU CAN"T DO THAT DAN MOODY plays at the Williamson County Courthouse now through October 1st and tickets are available at the Georgetown Palace website. This is a show that can appeal to everyone and not just to history buffs and fans of courtroom dramas. This is a relevant show in our country's current struggles (indeed, the writing, if it has not been updated, is frighteningly prescient as it contains terms like "Make America Great Again" and other all too recognizable, current phrases) and if you have the time and inclination to see it I suspect you might enjoy it, and I recommend doing so.
Photo credit: Rachel Britain