Notorious ’30s murderer Winnie Ruth Judd is subject of this world-premiere taut drama by local playwright Layce Gardner. Star Paige O’Hara, best known as voice of Belle in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” attempts quite a stretch–and comes out a winner.
Judd (O’Hara) was convicted in 1932 of murdering two female friends in Arizona, dismembering their bodies to be fitted into two trunks and a carpet bag. Shipping the luggageto L.A., she planned to dump them into the Pacific.
Play examines her back story and asks: Was she insane, as her defense successfully argued, or was the woman, clearly bright and witty, faking it to avoid being hanged?
Primary action takes place in her cell, where she’s being examined by psychologist Dr. Martin (Richard Michael Conti). Though Judd already has confessed to the murder, she points out that she’d have to be insane to devise such an absurd method of getting rid of the evidence.
Flashback dream sequences take Judd back home to Indiana and confrontations with her strict mother (Susan Kussman), and to the scene of the murder where Judd and her sometimes boyfriend Jack (Michael Lariscy) engage in a confrontation with the victims-to-be. Judge (Bob Prest) pops up a couple of times to move action along.
There wouldn’t be much drama without a deep, dark secret or two; those here deal with the relationship between Agnes Leroi (Kristina Sanborn) and Hedvig Samuelson (Margaret Kilbourne), and how it affects Judd.
Gardner’s language is occasionally a bit stilted, but generally on the mark, and a dream scene at the top of Act II is an ambitious attempt at what in film would be called montage.
Director John Rust, too, deserves credit for keeping the action clear and involving, and Joe Cashman designed an inventive set. Sound effects, credited to producers David R. Thornton and Scott Trowbridge, and Gary Guttman’s original music also are effective.
Thesping throughout is fine, though the play is clearly a star vehicle for whoever plays Judd. O’Hara convincingly creates a character who alternately is sympathetic and chilling; attractive and reprehensible. A beauty, one might say, and a beast.