Farmer's Branch — Oswald, a darkly insightful musical based on the life of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, took the stage at Firehouse Theatre in Farmers Branch Friday night in a staged reading revealing an indisputably thought-provoking work.
Louisiana native Oswald, as everyone over a certain age knows, will be forever associated with the Dallas-Fort Worth area—and not only because the assassination took place here in 1963. In a bizarre life history, Oswald journeyed from the Marine Corps to Russia (a reverse Cold War defector at a time when lots more folks were heading in the opposite direction) to Fort Worth and Irving, where he became notorious in small ways as a Marxist activist in a particularly anti-Communist region in an adamantly anti-Marxist America.
Any American over the age of 60 has pondered the unanswered questions and dizzying conspiracy theories surrounding the assassinations of Kennedy and, just hours later, of Oswald; the controversy and, indeed, pain of those events will endure on a personal, heartfelt level until those of us in that age cohort are all dead. And Oswald’s widow Marina still lives quietly just a few miles from where I sit as I write this, a living shadow of the darkest chapter in Dallas history.
Though the topic is grim and, for many of us, painfully real, to the point that anyone would question Oswald and the Kennedy assassination as a topic for a musical. But playwright Tony LePage and playwright-lyricist-composer Josh Sassanella developed a multi-layered strategy that not only re-examines our national confusion but explores the nature of truth and memory. itself. And it centers that exploration on thoughts and memories of Marina Oswald.
Indeed, the title of the show could just as easily have been “Marina.” The aging, wizened Marina watches herself as the Young Marina, eagerly escaping the strictures of Soviet life to taste the joys of America—but finding herself all-too-quickly transformed into the widow of one of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century. Tina Stafford plays the role of the elder Marina with calmly haunting intensity; Katie Moyes Williams matches with an equally concentrated poignancy of a young person who wants to experience life.
Playwrights Sassanella and LePage meanwhile pull off a creative tour de force and solve the dramatic problem of Oswald’s character by placing two versions of Lee Harvey Oswald onstage simultaneously—the angry, disturbed revolutionary who did indeed fire the deadly shots, and the gentler version who merely (in accordance with several conspiracy theories) was a patsy for a Mafia-FBI plot, and who fired a warning shot hoping to alert Kennedy and his party to the danger. Clad in James Dean-style jeans, boots, and white T-shirts, the two versions of Lee Harvey Oswald often speak and sing in unison—but tellingly break into contradictory dialogue, and one point, where the record is hazy and contradictory, show up at two different places at the same time. LePage himself takes on the role of the more violent version (designated as Oswald in the cast list) while Justin Mortelitti appears as the gentler manifestation (billed as Lee). Both deliver the steamy heat of a pressure-cooker that’s about to blow.
All of the secondary roles are double-cast, a strategy that has implications beyond simply saving theatrical resources. Joseph Burnham portrays the brother Robert Oswald, successfully capturing the frustration, sympathy, and anger inherent in the script—and, doubtless, in the real life of Robert Oswald, who died in Wichita Falls in 2017. LePage and Sassanella depart broadly from the historical record in re-imagining Marina’s friend Ruth Paine as a perky suburban housewife with a deep North Texas accent and a penchant for drowning apple pie in Reddiwip (when in fact, she was a staid Quaker schoolteacher educated at Antioch and Swarthmore). Historically accurate or not, Allison Bret plays out the role as written here winningly and sympathetically.
Alex Heika is equally spooky as David Ferrie, whom one prominent conspiracy theorist claimed played a role in the assassination (the real Ferrie, who died in 1967, denied involvement or knowledge of any sort); Brett Ricci creates an almost operatically intense entrance as slick-as-shit Jack Ruby. Deloris, a night-club singer and mafia moll (and an entirely made-up character, as far as my research yields, though I’d be happy for correction on that), is delivered beautifully by Devin Berg, with a steamily rendered torch song at just the right moment.
Musically, Sassanella’s score includes some brilliant and moving numbers, including the young Marina’s “Some Things Change,” a love song to Lee, with a gentle tension between the melody and accompaniment; “Play Your Part,” a tortured chorus of factory workers in Dallas; Ruth’s ironically cheerful warning of the emptiness of the American dream in “Normal”; the same character’s paean to American motherhood—with an appealing calypso beat—in “What a Mother Does”; and the painful pseudo-macho patriotism of “One Man.” The final duet, when the Young Marina and the Old Marina face each other, beautifully sums up the dilemma of a woman caught up unwillingly and tragically in the tangled web of history. Although at times the score lapses into the second-hand soft-rock recitative style that was long-tired by the time it reached Rent 20 years ago, the music on the whole creatively fines irony and a reason to sit up and listen, while setting a catastrophic situation to music.
That instrumental score is handled by an orchestra mixing digital instruments, old-style electronic rock instruments, and an acoustic trap-set. Jane Cardona music directs from the keyboard, unfailingly in sync with the singers and often accomplishing the difficult task of bringing an instrumental part in as background to spoken dialogue before segueing into prominence as accompaniment. Balance and mics work generally well; dialogue and sung words were comprehensible, with one short moment when a mic slipped a smidgen out of range for one performer on Friday night.
As this weekend’s performances are classified as a staged reading, performers often consult scripts and scores, but never in an obtrusive fashion; the dramatic impetus never fails. Sets are minimal—a folding table, a cardboard box, several folding chairs, a rifle, and the afore-mentioned apple pie and Reddiwip—appropriate to the dark nature of the piece. The one complex property aspect is the projection of historical images on a screen, often of very personal, everyday moments in the life of Lee and Marina (with the infamous backyard shot of Oswald with his rifle photo-shopped to portray the split personality trope of the play).
The 90-minute, one-act structure works well, building a swirling momentum climaxing with the gunshots that changed America forever—and carrying over into a quiet but scorchingly revelatory denouement. There’s no grand finale here (we don’t see Oswald’s famous murder, captured live in that Dallas police station), but instead a moment of self-realization for Marina and for any attentive audience member. As Marina says early on, “Truth is fickle”; the experimental duality and relentless motion of Oswald capture that truth about “truth,” in a work that should successfully reach stages and shake audiences far beyond the little theater in Farmers Branch.