Top Shelf Theatre Company, a new theater has just opened in Walnut Creek and receives a standing ovation!

Top Shelf Theatre Company, a relatively new local theater company, has just unveiled their first major dramatic effort in Walnut Creek and is renting the Diablo Actor’s Ensemble Theater on Locust Street for the opening of “Never the Sinner”. This play is about one of the first major criminal trial spectacles to be dubbed “a crime of the century” by the news media, a play in which author John Logan addresses the famous 1924 “Loeb and Leopold” murder trial in Chicago. The trial was one of the most notorious criminal events of its time, for both its senselessness and horrific overtones in addition to the stirring summations by attorneys Clarence Darrow & Robert Crowe. Two exceptionally brilliant young men, Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb, schemed, plotted and planned for 9 months to commit what they felt would be the “perfect” crime. Their motivation was totally unusual, not for money, not for revenge, but that of simply committing murder and getting away with it, to prove themselves the Nietzschian supermen they thought they were.

Author John Logan is a successful playwright and screenwriter whose play “Red”, won 6 Tony Awards last year on Broadway in addition to his critically acclaimed Academy Award nomination success for authoring the movie script, “Gladiator” in 2000, and the “Aviator” script (starring Leonardo DiCaprio), in 2004. “Never the Sinner” was spurned by Logan’s interest in murder stories. He found that the story behind the story of this sensational trial and its singularly unique trial strategy was as important to the annuls of history as the trial’s final outcome. This trial has been considered by many as Clarence Darrow’s greatest and most significant victory. To understand the uniqueness of the trial, one has to understand the very complex character of its principal subjects, why they killed, and why the defendants’ skilled attorney did something never done before in a US courtroom; he pleaded his defendants “guilty”, but not by reason of insanity!

Nathan Leopold was considered a “child prodigy”. He spoke his first words at four months, and by age 19 was capable of speaking 27 different languages fluently, was an expert ornithologist, had already graduated from the university of Michigan and was preparing to enroll in Harvard’s law school. Leopold was the youngest graduate in the history of the University of Michigan. He excelled in every task given him.

Richard Loeb was also exceptionally gifted, exceedingly bright and much advanced scholarly for his age (perhaps due in large part to an overzealous tutoring nanny). He was able to skip several class grades and entered the University of Michigan at age 14, where he and Leopold became acquainted. However, his studies floundered in the college arena when his tutor was no longer there to oversee his study regimen. Loeb was handsome, outgoing and admired by his peers.

While at the University of Michigan, Loeb and Leopold embraced the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), a philosopher whose writings have had great intellectual and political influence around the world. Nietzsche was a fervent philosopher who was anti-democracy, anti-Christianity, anti-Judaism, anti-socialist and self-acclaimed Anti-Christ. He expressed his belief in a “master race” and the coming of a superman in many of his works. Nietzsche’s philosophy, evocative style and outrageous claims set him apart from other philosophers, gathering many followers who were estranged from mainstream society.

Leopold and Loeb were an excellent match psychologically.The brilliant but socially inept Leopold was enthralled by the handsome and vivacious Loeb; and Loeb found an excellent alter ego for his fantasy world in his relationship with Leopold, a relationship in which he was supreme. By the summer of 1921 they were inseparable, and it is likely they began a sexual relationship. Leopold graduated with honors in March 1923; Loeb barely graduated from the University of Michigan in June 1923.

Both men returned to Chicago and pursued post-graduate studies at the University of Chicago while living at home. Loeb continued to embroil Leopold in a number of different criminal pursuits, using the promise of sexual favors as an enticement, and became increasingly obsessed with the development and commission of a “perfect crime”.

Leopold, age 19 at the time of the murder, and Loeb, 18, were head and shoulders above most of their college classmates. They believed themselves to be Nietzschean supermen who could commit a "perfect crime" (in this case a kidnapping and murder). Before the murder, Leopold had quoted Nietzsche to Loeb: "A superman ... is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do. Whether as a result of rebellion towards the repressive educational regime, or some deep-seated psychological flaw, Loeb began to show a distinct Jekyll/Hyde personality from a very early age. The carefully planned kidnapping and murder did take place, setting in motion this unique trial.

Director Matt Davis was indeed fortunate to find such a fine selection of actors capable of delivering these complex characters and their personalities in such perfect harmony with the true life characters. Chris Dewey (as Nathan Leopold) and Brian Mattthews (as Richard Loeb) delivered a performance that I felt was at near perfection. Attorneys Clarence Darrow and Robert Crowe were played equally at a level of outstanding perfection, by Kennet Jeffress and Randy Anger. Three remaining actors, Dean Creighton, Caitie McNamara and Greg Asdourian played a plethora of other characters, ranging from newspaper reporters, medical doctors, psychologists, girl friends and police officers. While Dean Creighton and Caitie McNamara were stellar in their characterizations and deliveries, actor Greg Asdourian seemed to have some difficulty in projecting and enunciating clearly enough for the audience to grasp the full import of his verbal contributions. With a little more actual stage time in this production under his belt, and a little more specific encouragement from director Matt Davis, Greg should be able to contribute as fully as the other actors have done.

“Never the Sinner” is a very powerful play but one that seems quite choppy in the first half, due to the many, many set changes (re-positioning of chairs primarily). The production is handicapped by the fact that this small theater does not have enough floor space and directional lighting to isolate elements on the stage, which would have allowed scene changes to move more expeditiously. All of this minor stuff aside, the play is very engaging, very thought provoking and even though history has told us that these two young men probably would have been sent to the gallows had they not had attorney (Clarence Darrow) and the privileges that wealth can afford, you may find your own opinion swayed by Darrow’s brilliant tactics and superlative summation. I strongly suggest that his is a piece of theater that should not be missed.

The “Top Shelf Theater Company” is presenting this piece in the Diablo Actor’s Ensemble Theater space at 1345 Locust Street in Walnut Creek, next door to Peet’s Coffee and Tea. General admission is $20. The remaining performance dates are June 24th ,25th and July 1st and 2nd at 8p.m., with matinees on June 25th and 26th, July 2nd and 3rd, at 2 p.m., closing on the 3rd of July. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit this link on line to purchase tickets:
There is a city garage directly across the street from the theater that usually has lots of parking space at a very reasonable price.