The premise of Frame 312 should be fascinating. Playwright Keith Reddin postulates that the 22-second Abraham Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy's assassination that was minutely examined by the Warren Commission had been edited, and that an excised frame -- frame 312 -- shows the president's head slamming backward, indicating that there was a second shooter.
In a series of brief scenes, the play moves back and forth between 1963 and 1998. The original film, complete with this frame, winds up in the hands of Lynette, an editorial assistant at Life magazine when JFK was assassinated. The young Lynette, who saw the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald on television and is aware that other people associated with the investigation of Kennedy's murder have died unexpectedly, is terrified by the responsibility of holding the film. In the later scenes, Lynette is middle-aged, and her grown children -- son Tom and daughter Stephanie -- are visiting to celebrate her birthday. Tom is married to a materialistic shrew, while Stephanie is a single social worker, heavily medicated for depression. Lynette still has the film; she has never told her family about it.
You keep waiting for the plot development that will explain the significance of all this, but it never comes. Is Frame 312 supposed to be a political thriller, or a reminder of the still-unsolved mysteries surrounding the famous death in Dallas? Is Lynette's fear at having the film in her possession rational or paranoid? Perhaps Reddin is saying that her corrosive secret destroyed Lynette's life and all possibility of a warm relationship with her children -- and, by extension, that these secrets somehow corrupted America. You could think of Tom's weakness and greed and Stephanie's listless anger as symptoms of what ails this country, but that's a stretch, and Reddin doesn't help you come up with any other interpretation.
There's no depth or texture to anything that happens on stage. I don't understand why Tom's nasty wife suddenly challenges him to name their children when there's no indication that he's either feeble-minded or neg-lectful. As a mother myself, I'm always interested in mother-daughter interactions, but I have no idea why Stephanie and Lynette are so distant with each other. Nothing quite fits together; no action builds on the action preceding it.
The trouble lies primarily with the script, though the listless pace of this Next Stage production is also problematic. Aside from Janelle Christie, whose overacting in several smaller roles proves distracting, the performances are thoughtful. You can't go wrong with Laura Norman, who gives the young Lynette a gentle, bewildered quality. Wearing a too-conspicuous brown wig, Susan d'Autremont plays the older version with less strength and conviction than I expect of her, perhaps because she's trying to match her mannerisms and style to Norman's. Jim Hunt is likable as an avuncular editor. Josh Hartwell gives a low-key, intelligent rendition of Tom and also does well with three ancillary roles. Jennifer Forsyth, who plays the fiercely sulky Stephanie, is a true original with impeccable comic timing, and things liven up whenever she walks onto the stage. But even these fine actors can't ransom this script.
"Something's missing. Pieces don't fit," Lynette says of the film. The same is true of this play.
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