Playwright Dennis Richard turns audience members into flies on the walls of the Dallas Police Station interrogation room where Lee Harvey Oswald parried question after question with the aplomb of a professional liar in the two days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Richard’s fascinating docudrama Oswald, The Actual Interrogation, now playing at San Pedro’s Little Fish Theatre.

The basic facts behind Oswald are simple and straightforward.

At about half-past-noon Dallas time on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot as his motorcade passed in front of the Texas School Book Depository … and thirty minutes later was pronounced dead.

Then, two days later, as a nation sitting glued to their TV screens looked on in horror, the President’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself fatally shot by local nightclub operator Jack Ruby.

But what about the forty-eight hours separating these two America-shattering events?

10538078_10152215947036373_4376151646826475060_n Oswald, The Actual Interrogation dramatizes what reportedly occurred between the presumed assassin’s being taken into police custody and the gunshots that cut short not only Oswald’s life but any ability to further probe the mind of the man Richard’s play so effectively resurrects.

Richard meticulously recreates what happened behind closed police station doors, relying primarily on notes taken by Captain Will Fritz (James Rice), the officer in charge of “breaking” Oswald (Cylan Brown), a man who prided himself on being unbreakable, stubbornly refusing to admit any involvement in either the assassination of President Kennedy or the fatal shooting of police officer J. D. Tippit despite (in the latter case in particular) considerable evidence to the contrary.

10519772_10152215947736373_6221682904586477880_n Also involved in questioning Oswald are detective Jim Leavelle (Doug Penikas), FBI agent James Hosty, Jr. (Brendan Gill), assistant DA Bill Alexander (Rodney Rincon), and Postal Inspector H.D. Holmes (David Graham), while round and about are detective Richard “Dick” Sims (Bill Wolski), keeping guard outside the interrogation room, Judge David L. Johnston (Charles M. Howell IV), who arraigns Oswald right then and there, and a mysterious CIA agent (Graham), who pops in early on out of nowhere and then vanishes.

Oswald, The Actual Interrogation offers a fascinating glimpse at a man most of us have seen only in half-century-old black-and-white photos and newsreel footage of those all too brief moments when reporters were allowed to question the alleged assassin.

Simply witnessing the sheer chutzpah of Oswald’s bold-faced lies proves compelling indeed.

Q: Do you own a rifle? A: No, sir, I don’t. (Oswald clearly did.) Q: Is this a photo of you holding a rifle? A: No, sir, it’s a fake. (The picture was found among Oswald’s belongings.) Q: Who is A.J. Hiddle, whose forged draft card you had in your possession when we arrested you? A: You know as much about it as I do. (Oswald later admits to having used this name.)

10527372_10152215944521373_5046822060142896653_n Richard’s “just the facts” approach neither supports conspiracy theorists nor makes any attempts to disprove them. Likewise, director Stephanie Coltrin gives Oswald an appropriately documentary look and feel, newspaper photos and TV clips taking us back to those dark days in Dallas even as we witness The Actual Interrogation unfolding before our eyes.

In addition to Coltrin’s projections, the director’s period-perfect costumes help enable the production’s generally crackerjack ensemble of actors in disappearing into their roles. Panikas, usually a dancer, is quite good indeed as a no-nonsense Texas detective. Graham, Howell, and Gill are first rate too, as is Rincon, who more than anyone else appears to have stepped out of a 1960s black-and-white photo. As for Wolski, the Little Fish favorite not only makes the most of his limited time “in the room,” Coltrin’s decision to keep Detective Sims always in view in the adjoining anteroom keeps Wolski always in character while providing a connection with the outside world.

10294229_10152215947111373_5234516611823501185_n Not surprisingly, the evening’s toughest and most potentially rewarding assignments go to Brown and Rice, both of whom remain the center of attention throughout, and while Rice has his very strong moments, a riveting Brown is the more successful of the two, not only vanishing into Lee Harvey Oswald’s well-known physicality but creating an indelible portrait of as bold-faced a compulsive liar as you’ve likely ever seen onstage. Rice’s folksy, foxy Fritz, on the other hand, is hampered by a too frequent tripping over lines in a role requiring razor-sharp command of them.

Chris Beyries’s set ably reproduces the drab grays you’d expect in a Dallas police station circa 1963, Darrell Clark’s stark lighting proving effective as well, with occasional dramatic flashes. (The spotlight on Oswald is a nifty touch.) Coltrin’s sound design is topnotch as well.

Caroline Benzon is stage manager.

A post-performance talkback with the playwright and cast revealed the truth behind the axiom that “everyone remembers where they were when JFK was shot.”

Whether, like those theatergoing Boomers, you are of age to recall with precision that fateful day, or a Generation X-er simply interested in the Kennedy assassination for historical reasons, Oswald, The Actual Interrogation makes for exciting theater down San Pedro way.

Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre St. San Pedro. Through September 4. Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8:00.

–Steven Stanley
August 14, 2014
Photos: Mickey Elliot

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