Review

Before Black Lives Matter there was Clarence Darrow, brought to life onstage in Ventura

There’s an extraordinary moment in Rubicon Theatre’s in-the-round staging of “Clarence Darrow” when the legendary attorney strides into the audience to plead for the Sweets, a black family charged with murder after defending their home from a white mob. Through a combination of lighting, sound and sheer eloquence, we become the jury whom Darrow urges to look inward and to see that what’s really on trial is our own racism.

It could be an argument heard in a court today — except that the year is 1925, long before the civil rights era, before Black Lives Matter.

In this revival of David W. Rintels’ 1975 historical portrait, James O’Neil’s impassioned performance overcomes the usual objections to the solo actor format, finding in the controversial figure of Darrow a personification of the challenges, triumphs and all-too-human shortcomings of our legal system. O’Neil literally has the role in his DNA: The actor is a direct descendant of Darrow’s first cousin. The family resemblance to photographs of Darrow is unmistakable, from the piercing eyes, barrel chest and roguish cowlick, to the signature rumpled suit that proclaimed his lifelong populist allegiance.

Rintels’ script weaves verbatim passages from court transcripts and Darrow’s own writings into this retrospective narrative of Darrow’s life and career, from humble Ohio origins to big-city renown. In delivering the persuasive oratory and wit Darrow favored over flashy courtroom theatrics, O’Neil’s authentically calm, measured Midwest cadences erupt at just the right times with fervor and outrage befitting a tireless crusader for civil liberties. Honestly, it’s enough to give lawyers a good name.

Director Jenny Sullivan sustains momentum and interest through the play’s two acts — an unusually long stretch by today’s solo-show standards. There’s no flab to be cut in the piece, however. From Darrow’s efforts on behalf of workers’ rights at the dawn of the labor movement to his defense of evolution against creationism, each of his cases resonates with topical urgency as the pendulum seems to swing back against progress we take for granted. Or as Darrow more succinctly puts it: “History repeats itself — that’s the trouble with history.”

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“Clarence Darrow,” Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 12. $44-$54. (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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