Several people have asked me what 1:23 is about. Carson Kreitzer's new play, premiering this month at the Cincinnati Playhouse, could be seen as one of those yanked-from-the-headlines pieces, since it was inspired by three women who drowned their children. But it was not intended to scandalize. I've been hesitant to say much about the play's subject, concerned that those asking will stay away. That would be a mistake: Kreitzer's play transcends the sensational and instead sheds light on the psyches and circumstances that have made inconceivable acts a reality. 1:23 offers no easy answers or pat explanations, but after 75 minutes we understand that these women are not simply murderers who deserve punishment. It's a tortured conclusion, and that's probably appropriate.
Two familiar cases form the core of 1:23. (The play's title is a reference to a time of day when testimony was recorded, although those numbers also link to Biblical texts offering further commentary on the play's action and emotion.) Throughout the play Andrea Yates (portrayed in a nearly catatonic state by Eva Kaminisky) remains onstage, staring blankly into a camera, her emotionless face displayed on a monitor overhead. She is interrogated by a police investigator, McManus (Josh Shirley), who draws out objective facts about how she drowned her five children in her Houston home in 2001. He tries to delve into the reasons she did his terrible thing, but she does not offer much.
The second case is that of Susan Smith (Deborah Knox), who in 1994 claimed she had been carjacked in a small town in South Carolina and her two young sons kidnapped. It was eventually revealed that there was no carjacker; in reality, she had allowed her car to roll into a lake with her children in it. In 1:23 we see her questioned by Stevens, a cop (Robert Elliott) who doubts his own efficacy; we also see re-creations of televised appeals she made for the return of her children. Her motivation, while strained, is more evident than Yates'. It is clear she was overwhelmed by the responsibilities of motherhood.
Their stores are interwoven with that of Juana Leija (Shirley Roeca), an Hispanic woman in Texas who attempted to kill herself and her seven children. Her story conjures allusions to La Llorona, a sort of spirit from Mexican legend, a woman who lost her children and haunts river banks to claim the spirits of others (Roeca also plays this role in scenes using extensive projected imagery derived from children's drawings or folk art).
La Llorona's tale is a thematic undercurrent for the play. We are also introduced to the Carjacker (Rege Lewis), a figment of Susan Smith's imagination that momentarily resonated with the public when she sought sympathy for the crime she claimed had been perpetrated. This role is intended to represent not just the easy explanation, but also to embody fears that have driven some women to these acts. The racial overlay, while certainly based on Smith's case, nevertheless blurred the understanding Kreitzer seems to ask of audiences.
The cops, especially Stevens, offer a purer insight into the troubling confusion these cases inspire. They interweave into one another's cases (McManus questions the Carjacker at one point, for instance), but their conversation about the role of good cop/bad cop reveals the trying responsibilities such investigators must shoulder and reflect the attitudes of larger society.
1:23 has been assembled by the same creative time that staged Oppenheimer four years ago at the Playhouse, especially director Mark Wing-Davey. The use of technology to enhance the storytelling, used so effectively in Oppenheimer, is again powerfully employed. However, 1:23's narrative is more impervious to understanding, and the message of this play is less clearly focused than Wing-Davey's previous elucidation of Kreitzer's writing. 1:23 tells us that something terrible is happening in these women's psyches, an attitude that's ticking, a bomb waiting to explode. It's a powerful play, but its explosive nature needs a sharper focus. Grade: B+
1:23, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through March 4.