By Ray Lond
“Pieces of Time” at the Celebrity Center Theater cast a deepening shadow over familiar notions about crime and judgement. The play opens in shadow, with an intruder bludgeoning a woman in her bedroom, and quickly segues to a newsman interviewing the killer on Death Row. What follows is a surprisingly strong prison drama exceptionally well crafted by playwright Jules Maitland and distinctively acted by Stephen Nichols in the role of the doomed killer.
Cliche in this case leads to solid drama. In fact, it was drama: The playwright is an ex-con (forgery) who shared a San Quentin cell in the early ’50s with the true-life subject of his play (Donald Bashor). Each man was ultimately released and went his own ways, one to become a writer and the other a self-admitted murderer. Before the killer’s execution in 1957, Maitland returned to San Quintin and spent hours tape-recording his former cellmate’s thoughts and feelings. After the execution, the edited results were aired on CBS radio; then “Playhouse 90” acquired the tapes and turned them into a TV drama, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Tab Hunter.
Now, 25 years later. Maitland has written his own docudrama, with the final drafts representing interaction from actor Nichols, who listened to the tapes to develop his character.
Time and distance have obviously aided the playwright. With a great deal of candor, he dramatizes his own hesitant role as reporter and friend. (He is played by Larry Pennell.) Ellen Gorenzel skillfully assays several parts (the murderer’s maddened mother, his girlfriend, his murder victim), and director Robert Guenette sharply stages events.
Several devices heighten dramatic impact, among them the killer’s voice on a reel-to-reel tape recorder that activates scenes in the condemned man’s past and present, an effective lighting design by Gil Hubbs and a spare set design by John Todd.
The flaw in the production is actor Pennell as Maitland. The strength of the role should sneak up on you, with love between the two men as the ultimate subject, but Pennell’s performance is flabby and tentative.
As the young prisoner, Nichols is fire and ice and finally human. He seems an uncommonly promising actor.
(As a relevant footnote, the cast performed the play before an audience of 400 prisoners at the Federal Correctional Institute at Terminal Island.)