Half a century ago, in a world far away, Americans shared a historic trauma — watching on television as their president was murdered.
In the years since, almost all the countless attempts to ponder the killing of JFK have focused on two questions: “Who did it, and why?”
Children of Camelot, a new play now getting its full premiere, asks different questions. In today’s world, when most folks were born long after that assassination, asking new questions suggests we may at last be growing beyond being mere victims of the trauma.
First-time playwright/director Nakisa Aschtiani specifically brings two questions to bear: “How did it affect the families?” and “What if there had been a trial?” These are good questions; since neither can be answered by consulting documents, we must consult imagination.
Aschtiani and her actors imagine some arresting moments, as well as (to be honest) a few prosaic ones. And all the moments are strung together in a satisfyingly theatrical fashion.
The scenes between accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and his lawyer start off promisingly, but lose tension as the relationship fails to develop. Still, kudos for picking JFK protege Mark Lane as the defender. (Lane actually did ask to represent Oswald’s interests before the Warren Commission.)
More successful are the scenes of (fictional) prosecutor Nichole Andrews. She’s brusquely dismissive when Lane tries various ploys to engage her out of court, and finally delivers a curt warning to take the state’s offer. Then she’s the one tacking and turning, trying to make contact with her star witness, Mrs. Kennedy, baffled by a wall of disdain even sturdier than her own.
Most effective are the lines — especially the monologs — spoken by the protagonists’ wives. The royal widow Jackie at first shocks us, acting the angry diva in public; then she collapses privately into loss and loneliness. Marina Oswald, an almost forgotten immigrant wife, watches without hope as her fate dangles in the hands of strangers.
Then, in a bold stroke, Aschtiani brings the two women together.
This duet, one of the play’s high points, bristles with taut energy that finally bursts in hostility, then relaxes as the two women discover what they share that few others will ever experience.
By the time Marina at last visits Oswald’s cell, she has agreed to testify for the prosecution. We expect the familiar trope, the two of them embracing, orphans in the storm; we get a marriage shattered by the terrors each has had to face alone.
The script is at its strongest — at times brilliant — when exploring these subtle conflicts and complex feelings. It struggles when trying to compress mountains of courtroom procedure and conspiracy theory into a few seconds of dialog.
But there’s no question Aschtiani is onto something. And her company gives it a lively hour onstage.
Jeremy Krasovic, as Oswald, goes from hospitalized despair to imprisoned passion, avoiding merely mimicking a media-familiar figure. Heather Lynn Smith likewise plays the complex Jackie in the script, not the image we know from news clips, taking us on a complex emotional journey. Brenda Kenworthy creates a wholly believable top-level civil servant. And as Marina, Nomi Abadi turns a shadow at history’s edge into a real, tortured person. (Abadi has left the company, so you will see another actor in this role.)
The Moth, one of LA’s smallest black boxes (at 25 seats) is a place to get new work seen and heard, not to showcase fancy production. Nothing could be simpler or less elegant than Mickey Lay’s set furniture made of two-by-fours; yet even at the Mark Taper, the division of playing areas — and the use of the single scrim — could not be improved upon. The period music (selected by AnnaKate Mohler and Peter Altschuler) is also perfectly apt, often wryly so.
Aschtiani has said the play’s “What if?” dimension grew from her belief that everyone has a right to a fair trial, and “Oswald never got that.” But the subtler, more human depths of Children of Camelot surely grew from the sensibility in her next remark: “Ruby claimed to shoot Oswald because he wanted to spare Mrs. Kennedy a trial,” she said. “By giving Oswald justice, I took that away from Jackie.”
What Children of Camelot gives Jackie in return — and gives to Lee Oswald, to Marina, and even to the fictional prosecutor — is the chance to emerge onstage as complex and fully human. This is the truth that documents cannot provide, and only imagination can.
The play, like the stage furniture, still shows its rough edges. But it’s a bold venture beyond history, into the human depths beneath a national tragedy. Children of Camelot — and its playwright — are well worth watching.
Children of Camelot, written and directed by Nakisa Aschtiani.
Presented by Lindsay Aschtiani and Lauren Francis, at The MOTH Theatre, 4359 Melrose Ave., Hollywood 90029.
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 5:00,
through Dec. 20.