It’s been done before: the anatomy of a killer. A young boy, product of twisted or loveless parents, grows into a life of crime and becomes twisted and loveless himself. His compulsive burglaries lead to the bludgeoning death of two women and he is executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber. His story is told through a taped interview with a former inmate and friend turned radio reporter and in flashbacks.
Jules Maitland’s Pieces of Time is based on a true experience and rewritten from a program he broadcast on CBS radio in 1957, the night the actual prisoner, Donald Keith Bashor, was executed. (Playhouse 90 also aired it’s version the following year.)
It’s been done before – and more effectively – but not with an actor in the central role as compelling or tormented as Stephen Nichols. As Duane Keller, progressing from victim to victimizer, Nichols leaves an indelible image of a man balancing precariously on the edge of an abyss, ready to be hurled downward at the slightest shift of the wind. Nichols’ angelic faces becomes surly, tortured, driven, weary. Entrapped by his homicidal sickness and haunted by the knowledge that he is beyond redemption, beyond normalcy, Nichols’ killer magnetizes our attention. Particularly riveting is the scene which he does push-ups looking straight at the audience and talking about his compulsion to commit crime.
Maitland’s play breaks no new ground. Both he and director Robert Guenette have considerable radio, television and/or motion picture experience and these influences are reflected in the writing and in the direction. Scene changes that would work in other media when bridged with music, sound effects, fades or blackouts are handled awkwardly for the most part onstage, with actors walking into another area to begin the next scene or to assume a different character. This makes for slow moments and uncertain transitions.
An Equus-like element is introduced in which the reporter examines his own feelings and his relationship to Duane, but this is never developed. Duane’s sudden speech that there must be a way to help criminals like himself, coming right on the heels of his expressed wish to die, seems a gratuitous plea for abolishing the death penalty.
Larry Pennell plays the reporter and other men in Duane’s lied, and Ellen Gorenzel plays Duane’s mother and girlfriend. Both lack conviction.
John Told’s utilitarian furniture and slate gray flats are appropriately stark, while the lighting design of Amy Shelly, Gil Hubbs and Colin Irwin is exceptionally good, particularly the shafts of light forming Gothic arches.