When a play bears the title "Lethal Injection," it gets your attention. Michael Reimann's courtroom drama holds your interest, too, even though this Baltimore Playwrights Festival entry at Vagabond Players does not exactly have a light touch with its heavy themes.
The play's title and its murder trial setting in a small-town courtroom in Texas might prompt you to think that it will be about the ethical merits of capital punishment. After all, this trial takes place in a state that's known for the frequency with which the death penalty is imposed and carried out.
Although the lawyers and various other characters in Reimann's fully populated drama occasionally make direct reference to capital punishment, it's a bit of a surprise that the plot is instead driven by different thematic concerns. Much of the playwright's attention is devoted to internal dissension within the two-person state prosecution team. Their squabbling escalates as they try to decide how best to uncover what may be family secrets deeply hidden by the two brothers facing murder charges.
Once you've made the adjustment to the playwright's actual agenda here, "Lethal Injection" works reasonably well as an investigative piece. Reimann's thematically stilted dialogue isn't helped any by a cast prone to mechanical line readings, but you'll want to stick around to find out what brought all of us to a courtroom set that's aptly claustrophobic in terms of trying to ascertain what skeletons the defendants might have in their family closet.
There is no doubt that the two middle-aged Wellington brothers, Kyle (Steve Izant) and Ty (Bruce Levy), were directly involved in the shooting death of a man found by the police in a family home. The trial obviously seeks to find out which of them pulled the trigger and why.
These rich brothers were acquainted with the working-class victim, so issues of social rank are discussed during the trial; and the politically well-connected brothers have friends in high places, so the trial's outcome is being closely watched and perhaps influenced.
Consequently, there's no shortage of tension in a history-drenched courtroom whose decor includes a lithograph of the Alamo and a photograph of a famous Texan, President Lyndon Johnson. Also qualifying as regional decor are the small-town characters sporting Texas accents as pungent as barbecue sauce.
The one character who conspicuously does not have such an accent is the district attorney, Dan Fuller (Troy Hopper), who originally comes from a big city so far away, New York, that it might as well be in another country. Hopper easily gives the best performance in the otherwise blandly acted show directed by Larry Pinker, because he has a firm command of Fuller's angry rhetoric.
Fuller initially spars with his assistant, Bryce Toland (Coreen Ayr Hamilton), who claims that gender bias is responsible for her being his assistant rather than the other way around.
It seems like Fuller and Toland might be able to arrive at a working relationship during the trial, but there's certainly no chance that Fuller will get along with a judge, William Toffett (Marc Rehr), whose rulings from the bench make it clear that his sympathies lie with the defense team. Likewise, witnesses including a sheriff and a police detective essentially belong to a good old boy network in this insular town.
The abrasive defense attorney, Robert Wiley (Tor Tonnessen), and the Wellington brothers know who their friends are on the bench and in the witness box. What they can't absolutely count on, however, is knowing how the unseen jury will respond. The characters direct their comments in our direction, so we're at least quasi-surrogates for the jury.
There's never any doubt that at least one of the Wellingtons killed a man, but you'll find yourself listening as closely as a juror for clues as to whether they're right in claiming they killed an intruder.
The playwright does a capable job of doling out the crime case details. If your attention is occasionally distracted, however, it's partly because the play's own attention often veers so completely into the spat between the male D.A. and his female assistant that you can lose sight of the trial itself; and it's also partly because the play is broken up into short scenes that make for a choppy narrative. It's fortunately worth waiting for the verdict.
"Lethal Injection" runs through Aug. 5 at Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway in Fells Point. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12, $10 for students. Call 410-563-9135 or go to http://www.vagabondplayers.org.