While technically not set in a courtroom, Tom Topor’s Nuts, running now at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through Sept. 29, has all the elements of a classic courtroom drama—a defendant, a judge, a prosecuting attorney, a defense attorney and witnesses. However, the question is not whether the defendant is innocent or guilty of a crime, but whether the defendant is competent
to stand trial.
Set in a hearing room in the psychiatric wing of New York’s Bellevue Hospital, State Supreme Court Judge Murdoch (Dwayne Stincelli) will determine whether Claudia Draper (Heather Gordon) will stand trial for manslaughter or be committed to a mental hospital. District Attorney Franklin Macmillan (Chris Schloemp, whose suit should have garnered him a contempt citation), along with Claudia’s mother Rose (Bonnie Jean Shelton) and stepfather Arthur (Dodds Delzell), are determined to see her committed. Claudia, with the help of attorney Aaron Levinsky (David L. Yen), is determined to have her day in court.
The play runs in real time with three acts of about 40 minutes each and two 10-minute “recesses” between the acts. The first act consists of testimony from Dr. Herbert Rosenthal (Peter T. Downey), the state’s evaluating psychiatrist. In the second, the parents testify and in the concluding act Claudia takes the stand in her own defense.
Set Designer Argo Thompson utilizes the entire studio theatre in recreating the claustrophobic confines of a Bellevue hearing room, so much so that when the court officer (Scott Wagman) instructed all in attendance to rise, some audience members stood up.
Director Joe Winkler has an A-list cast at work here, with particularly good work by Downey, as the smarmy psychiatrist, and Delzell, as the deceptively doting stepfather. The talented Gordon has little to do but appear perturbed in the background for the first two-thirds, but she gets to shine in the last act when her response to one of the DA’s questions turns into a brutally blunt monologue.
The play, written 40 years ago, probably seemed more daring at the time, with its story of an educated, upper middle-class woman with family secrets who turns to prostitution. Now it plays like an extended episode of Law and Order: SVU.
Its points about our flawed mental health system and the power of the patriarchy are (sadly) still valid, but they are wrapped in what is basically an unexceptional legal drama told by exceptional actors.
Rating (out of 5):★★★½
‘Nuts’ runs through Sept. 29 at Left Edge Theatre. 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Thu–Sat, 8pm; Sun, 2pm. $15–$42. 707.546.3600.