The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is perhaps the most written-about event of the 20th century, with over 800 books alone devoted to parsing the details of the how and why of the assassination and the alleged subsequent cover-up. Some books justify the evidence produced in the Warren Commission Report, which found Lee Harvey Oswald to be Kennedy’s sole murderer. Many reputable writers and investigators, including the 1960s District Attorney of New Orleans, James Garrison, meticulously and logically disputed the Warren Report’s conclusions.
The mainstream media ridicules “conspiracy theorists,” who put forth the idea that a cabal of conspirators were responsible for Kennedy’s murder and wanted him “out of the way” for various political reasons. Witnessed by the World written by Ronnie Cohen and Jane Beale and directed by Karen Carpenter provides an interesting spin on the assassination and the “conspiracy theory” decriers. It is informative, taking into consideration that there are those in subsequent generations who know little about the assassination and the major players connected to it.
The playwrights have cleverly avoid didacticism and preachiness. They posit information about the assassination through dialogue between an older journalist, Joan Ross (an excellent Charlotte Maier), enthralled with the research she has done about the assassination, and the younger, uninterested, uninformed screenwriter, Ira Basil (Max Gordon Moore in a good counterpoint), who is working with her on a writing project. Information is also revealed through the play’s developing action. We follow Joan and learn about the assassination as she channels information from her leads into discussions with the screenwriter, a friend, and her sources.
At the outset, we see the black-and-white TV clip of the Jack Ruby shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, which was the first live mass media murder viewed by millions. (There were no warning ratings preventing young children from watching the live coverage and later the incessant replaying of Oswald’s painful collapse after the bullet did its work.) We are in shock as the viewers at the time were in shock seeing Ruby conveniently smash the possibility that any trial of Kennedy’s alleged killer would take place.
If Ruby was a hero, performing the role of Oswald’s executioner, he was not released for his “good deed.” The mysterious incongruity is that Ruby received the death penalty after his first trial. This was overturned in a Texas appellate court. He was waiting for a second trial when he died of cancer in a Dallas hospital. Had he been threatened not to disclose the mystery of his relationships and background connections to mobsters, the CIA, Oswald and others? Though he was interviewed by Dorothy Kilgallen toward the end, Kilgallen never lived to “blow the lid off the JFK assassination” as she said she would.
Cohen and Beale explore these mysteries and others as Joan investigates Ruby’s early background and teen years to help Ira Basil finish a screenplay about Jack Ruby and the mystery surrounding his ties to organized crime and visits to Cuba. Though Ira warns Joan that she must not write about or investigate Ruby’s connection to the JFK assassination, Joan on her own time pieces together information she learns from Jack Ruby’s sister, Eileen Kaminsky (an exceptional and believable Lois Markle). After Joan and Eileen become close, Eileen gives Joan a box of items Ruby had given them to her for safekeeping, and which no one else knows about. Each item is a potential clue, a possible missing puzzle piece that Joan can use to create a logical picture of Ruby and his ties to organized crime figures and to explain why he killed Oswald.
As Joan’s investigation proceeds, potential answers about the assassination spur her on. We are interested and happy to go along for the ride, which she keeps hidden from Ira. But when Ira discovers information which throws Joan’s own character into muddy waters, we can see the headlines above her name calling her a “conspiracy theory nut,” a twist which is panicking Ira. He manages to continue working with her because he has grown closer to her and out of self-interest: he will continue to receive the information she has given him about Ruby. They work well together on the potentially lucrative screenplay.
The play is a vital go-see-it for a number of reasons. It will be informative for those who are unfamiliar with the Kennedy assassination and the time period. The play provides a quick and dirty clip sheet of one element of the possible assassination conspirator network that will not be found through mainstream media, except the History Channel offerings. Highlighted is a growing body of research about the history of our government’s political machinations during the Cold War and the lengths the intelligence community went to insure the U.S. retained the upper hand against Communist leaders. The well-constructed play keeps the audience engrossed in a period of our history which is crucial to understanding the present.
However, some of the contrivances are problematic. The device of using dialogue between an older journalist and a younger screenwriter unfamiliar with and uninterested about the assassination to get the information out works because it is subtle and well crafted into the conflict and the action of Joan’s investigation of Ruby. We can overlook it because it melds seamlessly with relaying the background information to the audience.
The contrivance of the naïveté of Joan’s character cannot be overlooked, however. We understand that she is a brilliant investigative reporter who is putting the pieces together and knows the score about the individuals connected with the assassination. We believe she is a hard-hitting and uncompromising journalist and a thorough researcher. But her ingenuousness with her sources, for example overlooking the shady character of one source she is dealing with, seems incongruous and is not credible.
Would the playwrights have created even more tension and the play been more striking if Joan implied she knew the risks involved, but took them anyway? Would this be a more heroic Joan, and one more in keeping with who she seems to be? The conclusion would be more tragic, more appropriate, and of course, more ironic. Though the acting is excellent and the ensemble work holds together beautifully, it is a lot to ask of Charlotte Maier to reconcile the contradictions of Joan as a naïve yet savvy, experienced journalist. If Joan were portrayed as one who interviews dark sources because of a moral imperative to get out the truth, her character would be elevated to nobility and the play lifted toward a greater reality. How many have risked their lives to tell the truth?
The play is enjoying its New York premiere, presented by Douglas Denoff and WBTW Productions in association with Culture Project until December 15 at 59E59 Theaters.