Though not as immediately familiar an event as it once was, the kidnaping of Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son remains an iconic story with local connections. William Cameron, an actor and director who teaches theater and communications at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, has researched and brooded about the case for a long time. Some 10 years ago he wrote a play about the Lindbergh story that focuses on the role of the young British domestic, Violet Sharp, who worked for the Morrow family, the parents of Lindberg’s wife, in Englewood, New Jersey, and came under scrutiny as a possible accessory to the crime. Cameron has won a playwriting award for “Violet Sharp,” and the play has been produced in California and Pennsylvania. Off-Broadstreet’s production is the first in New Jersey.
At the beginning of the play we learn that Sharp has complicated her life by lying to the police, and there seems to be a strong feeling that even when she retracts her lies, she is not able to remove the cloud of suspicion that hangs over her. The fact that the kidnaping took place in Hopewell, where the Lindberghs were building a house but had not yet moved in, makes the crime more mysterious. How did the kidnapers know the Lindberghs were there? The play takes place in the early stages of the investigation, and the police, who don’t really have a clue as to who might have done it, suspect an inside job, which makes their focus on Sharp perfectly reasonable. The issues of course all intensify when the kidnaped child is found dead.
The play has a large cast of characters, and all the actors except Tappany Hochman, who plays Violet Sharp, and Barry Abramowitz, who plays Captain Harry Walsh, the police detective in charge of the case, have multiple roles. In a way, it’s not quite accurate to say that Barry Abramowitz does not have multiple roles, for Captain Walsh has worked out a highly convincing good cop, bad cop routine that he plays by himself.
Kelly Lake appears as both Betty Gow, the nursemaid, and the press representative Adela, described as a “sob sister.” As Adela, she is seen frequently at her microphone, more smartly dressed than anyone else in the cast, giving us the latest development as we might have heard it on a commercial radio station. Jerry Smith is also responsible for two roles: Colonel Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of the New Jersey State Police (and father of Stormin’ Norman), and Septimus Banks, the head butler in the Morrow household.
Austin Begley has three roles to cover: Sergeant John McGrath, Captain Walsh’s second in command; Ernie Miller, the Ernie Violet first says she accompanied to the movies but then says they went to a speakeasy; and Charles Lindbergh. It says something about the focus of this play that the role of Lindbergh himself is not crucial enough to require the full-time services of a single actor.
All are veterans of Off-Broadstreet. The one newcomer in the cast, Kendra Guinness of Ringoes, is initiated by fire: she has four roles to manage: Anne Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindbergh and mother of the kidnaped baby; Laura Hughes, Mrs. Morrow’s secretary; Edna Sharp, Violet’s sister; and a nurse.
For this production, Off Broadstreet has used for the first time I can remember an overhead screen with comments and pictures. The screen may be there to carry “the news” as it appeared to the outside world, or it may be there to help an audience that can no longer be expected to be as familiar with the story as everyone once was, but whatever the motivation it may actually work more effectively simply because it is a novelty for this theater.
There are many theories as to why the Lindbergh case continues to have such a hold on people. But no matter what your attitude toward the case, or even toward Lindbergh himself, you are likely to be caught up by the production Off-Broadstreet has put together.
The play itself may not be the strongest vehicle to adorn its stage, but the spectacle of what happens when an innocent bystander is felled by intense suspicion and relentless questioning makes a gripping scenario. And, of course, because the high profile case remains unsolved, or at least not solved to everyone’s satisfaction, it continues to fascinate us.
Violet Sharp, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, June 22, Friday and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Desserts served an hour before show, $29.50 to $31.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.