Dear Mister President

Five would-be assassins (and Khrushchev) in search of a narrative

According to many conspiracy buffs, anti-Castro Cubans shot John Kennedy. Or Chicago mobsters did it. Or rebel CIA agents. Or Ari Onassis. One pamphlet, entitled "The Assassination Festival of Jacqueline the Praying Mantis," alleges JFK was a casualty of a deadly clan feud between the French Bouviers and Irish Kennedys. Walt Stepp's play Why We Shot John doesn't propose quite so fantastic a plot. Rather, he credits JFK's death to a cabal of five congressmen and government officials who felt threatened by the president's increasing power. Forty-odd years on, they've come onstage to explain why they ordered the assassination.

One conspirator, who styles himself Brutus, explains that John was marked for death when "he began to show his fabulous ambition." "He would be crowned," says Brutus. Stepp, who numbers among his other works Dominoes: A Watergate Musical, makes the Julius Caesarparallels wearily explicit, if not altogether apt. While Shakespeare had Marc Antony complain, "They that have done this deed are honorable. What private griefs they have, alas! I know not," Stepp airs their grievances aloud, offering an overwhelming array of motivations. Scenes cannon from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Carousel Club. After a pause for exposition at the present-day "Conspirator's Reunion," they zing back to the Oval Office and the University of Alabama.

The five conspirators, each sporting a natty suit and, save for the lone female, a receding hairline, play all the roles, including Kennedy, Johnson, Oswald, George Wallace, and a bizarrely accented Khrushchev. (Though press notes and simple chronology indicate that the conspirators should by now be octogenarians, the median age of the cast appears mid-fifties.) The actors acquit themselves well as the plotters but perform their other roles with middling conviction. Were the production more thoughtful, one might even assume a Brechtian alienation effect was operating. In fact, the structure of the piece bears a striking resemblance not to a Shakespearean tragedy but to a Brechtian lehrstucke, such as The Measures Taken, in which a group of Communist agents are called before a tribunal and must restage the murder of their colleague.

Conspirators anonymous: the plotters confess their sins
photo: Peter Sylvester
Conspirators anonymous: the plotters confess their sins

Unlike in Brecht's play, Stepp never provides a reason why this troupe should come forward now and explain themselves. Why shouldn't they have done so decades ago? Why should they do so ever? Though Brutus (Scott Glascock) states that "the question why has always haunted" Americans, he gives no convincing reason for offering an exorcism. Stepp makes the grounds for Kennedy's assassination legion (his championing of civil rights, his reluctance to send more troops to Vietnam, his alleged non-aggression pact with Khrushchev), but the motivation for rendering all this in play form and producing it now remains tediously obscure.

Theater itself is something of a conspiracy, a scheme perpetrated by actors, directors, playwrights, and designers upon an audience who are typically happy to abet their own deceit. Is it altogether a coincidence that the story lines are termed "plots"? But successful conspiracies ought to have clearer aims and execution than what Stepp and his cohorts provide. Though the structure of each scene is itself simple, the number of figures portrayed therein and the history buff credentials one would need to identify them necessitate the program's inclusion of a two-page reference list and character glossary.

An introductory scene invites the audience into the proceedings, but much of the next two hours remain hermetic, self-contained assemblages of historically accurate vernacular and Biography channel personalities. Stepp's research is laudable, but the facts don't shore up a dramatic arc. Minutiae overwhelm narrative. A playwright's note indicates that Stepp means to draw comparisons between the Vietnam War, which escalated in the wake of Kennedy's death, and the current "foreign war of domestic expedience, no end in sight." But the play never makes good on those intentions, miring itself in backroom jargon (Bourbon Democrats, Dixiecrats, red hots, etc.,) and pompous epithet (i.e, "the prince of peace and sex" for JFK). B. Peter Westerhoff directs each of the 24 short scenes with speed and efficiency, if too much tonal similarity. Scenes don't differ much in rhythm or mood and Westerhoff offers little in the way of dramatic build.

The events of November 22, 1963, have inspired countless works of scholarship and art, each offering a different theory of the action, its perpetrators, and its impact on the nation. With so many questions raised and cover-ups mooted, a majority of Americans do not believe the true facts of the case are known. Yet the tangled and multidetermined story Stepp tells may make viewers long for those soothing and intelligible words of the Warren Report, "The shots which killed President Kennedy and wounded Governor Connally were fired by Lee Harvey Oswald."

 
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