An attractive woman in her early 30s when Nuts takes place in 1979, she has been remanded to Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric wing in New York City for evaluation to determine her capacity to stand trial on a charge of first degree manslaughter. It appears that she has been working as a prostitute for some months, and she killed a violent john. She doesn’t deny the crime, but she claims it was self-defense, and she vehemently insists that she is sane. She demands her Constitutional right to a speedy and fair trial on said charge. But, well, it’s complicated.


A courtroom is located in the hospital itself where competency hearings take place, and a realistic set complete with the seal of New York State above the bench has been imagined by Christie Johnson and dramatically lighted by Sean Savoie. Their efforts make the small stage seem a lot more spacious, considering nine actors are present throughout the proceedings. Claudia shows up in pajamas and robe, making her appear more vulnerable than the others onstage who are dressed for business. This being a hearing, things are somewhat looser than they might be in an actual trial, though Judge Murdoch (Bob Harvey) asserts his authority over “his” courtroom early on.


It would be hard not to feel a little thrill of satisfaction when the judge brings the hammer down on smug Dr. Rosenthal (Steve Callahan), witness for the state, who becomes nearly hysterical in his insistence that Mrs. Draper is a paranoid schizophrenic who needs to be medicated. In his professional opinion (and his record indicates this is his finding in about half the patients he evaluates) she is a danger to herself and others. The only other psychiatrist who spoke to her had little English and saw her only briefly, but his findings concur with Dr. Rosenthal’s who is dead convinced she needs treatment before she is fit to “understand the charges against her and participate in her own defense.”


Claudia Draper’s concern is a statute in the Mental Health Code of the State of New York referred to as the “Mental Hygiene Law.” Under its proviso, if she were to be declared incompetent (or in the vernacular, “nuts”) then she would be hospitalized for a year. If she were found not to be stable by that time, she would then be put away for two years. Every two years after that, she could be kept locked up to the extent of half the maximum sentence for her trial. Even then, she would still be at the mercy of the system, should it decide she was still not recovered.


Complicating matters is the presence of her mother and stepfather (Donna Weinsting, John Contini) in the courtroom. Both are called to the stand, but neither is much help to Claudia, and in all fairness, for the first two acts of the play, she doesn’t behave in a way that would attest to her stability. She is rude to the officials and her family. She keeps extensive notes, some of which she hands to her inexperienced lawyer, Aaron Levinsky (William Roth) and some she uses to bolster her own points in a belligerent manner. The judge’s indulgence of most of her antics, as well as those of the doctor and parents who engage in off-the-stand theatrics, does seem a bit far-fetched. But, it does make for effective drama.


Rose Kirk, Claudia’s mother, comes across as an old-fashioned, proper lady who is simply baffled by what happened to the little girl she adored. Further, it seems that she may have been complicit in the signal event of Claudia’s childhood and youth by enabling her husband, whom she married when Claudia was five years old, by allowing him extremely free access to the girl up until her teen years when Claudia finally got wise and locked the bathroom door. For his part, Arthur Kirk is a parsimonious man who believes that everything and everyone can be controlled by money. He was suspicious of Claudia’s ex-husband’s motives, and perhaps jealous of him, as well. He comes across as a real creep by the end of his testimony.


As far as I’m concerned, the Kirks are the most interesting and complex characters we see, however, and it’s not because their parts are written that way. Rather, they are filled in by the excellent veteran actors who inhabit them. It would be easy for them to be one-dimensional stereotypes, or even worse, caricatures, but Weinsting’s and Contini’s performances ensure that we see them as fully human, and against all odds, in their own ways, sympathetic. Also, and this is to the playwright Tom Topor’s credit, the sexual abuse motif remains admirably restrained.


Prosecutor Franklin Macmillan (Alan McClintock) acts casual in the beginning; it appears he thinks he has a slam-dunk case here, and that he’ll be in and out quickly. That doesn’t happen, and eventually, he finds a sneaky (and snarky) adversary in Levinsky. He seems under-prepared to fight an opponent from whom he never expected much in the first place, and he is further undercut when his ace-in-the-hole, Dr. Rosenthal, becomes positively apoplectic with rage over the way the proceedings seem to be heading and the upstart patient who is questioning HIS competency. All three actors are believable in their roles, but also need a few more performances under their belts to nail their lines.


Two other people also bear witness to these proceedings, Officer Harry Haggerty (Keith Thompson) who acts as bailiff as well as escort to Claudia and the court recorder, Rachel Visocan, who has the thankless part of pretending to type throughout the proceedings. Occasionally she does get to nod. However, both actors are attentive and never out of character.  In fact, Claudia says the only person in the room she trusts is Harry because he is disinterested in the outcome of her hearing. I do think that Thompson listens a little too actively—it would seem that he’d probably be bored with this kind of thing by now, but perhaps not.


Buck owns Act III, and she proves that her effective performance in the recent Rabbit Hole was no fluke. (Note: Weinsting also played her mother there, and the two work together well.) When it comes time to make her case, she does, indeed, deliver. After enumerating her thwarted hopes and ambitions, her ten-year disaster of a marriage, and the lengths to which she was willing to go to support herself afterward, she addresses the situation with her family as follows: Something happens to some people. They love you so much they stop noticing you’re there because they’re so busy loving you. They love you so much their love is a gun, and they keep firing it straight into your head. They love you so much you go right into a hospital. Yes, I know she loves me. Mama, I know you love me. And I know one thing you learn when you grow up is that love is not enough. It’s too much and not enough.


For me, the only serious weakness in the piece is an epilogue in which the stenographer tells us how everything comes out after the hearing’s verdict. The end of the part to which we bear witness is, I believe, the end. We don’t need it all wrapped up and tied in a bow. But at least it does give Visocan a chance to have a voice, at last. Milt Zoth’s direction is graceful but unobtrusive throughout. He seems to trust his actors, and that also speaks to his ability to cast well.


And here’s my own epilogue: I like three act plays to have two intermissions. I also think skipping intermission is a good idea if the play runs under two hours. I don’t understand the current obsession theatres have about forcing a single intermission into a play that isn’t originally structured that way. Here, that couldn’t easily happen though, as the intermissions are officially designated “smoke breaks.” How 1979! Overall, Nuts is an interesting piece of courtroom melodrama, and if you see it, the Cardinals won’t be competing for attention in the bar next door. Kudos to the actors for remaining in character during all the distractions!


Nuts runs through Oct. 23. You may visit Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 St. Louis.