Scared Suburban

After 40 years of books, films, plays and countless TV specials, it's hard to imagine there's anything new to say about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But playwright Keith Reddin gives it the old college try anyway with Frame 312.

Reddin's play, complete with conspiracy theory, comes at us through the weary eyes of Lynette (Carlin Glynn). This recently widowed, middle-aged housewife finds herself trapped by the dull troubles of her grown-up, ungrateful children. On her birthday, she steps onto the wide backyard porch of designer Kevin Rigdon's rather utilitarian set only to encounter the rages of her neurotic daughter Stephanie (Jenny Maguire). The thin bristle of a woman kicks about her mother's deck in tattered jeans and then sits at the jittery edge of her seat in petulant silence. When she does speak, it's only to enumerate her bratty complaints about everything in her sorry life, from her hateful job as a social worker to her older brother's smoking habit that makes him a "toxic waste site."

Her self-absorbed yammering is outdone only by her pompous brother's whining. Tom (Jeffrey Bean), his "Stepford wife" and his "JonBenét Ramsey" twins bluster into the sad party braying about the drive down as though it were of interest to everybody present. Fact is, nobody cares about anybody else in this icky family. Communication has regressed to the level of brother and sister taking infantile verbal swipes at each other. Stephanie spitefully asks her bald brother why he doesn't get himself a "rug." Once Tom and Mom are alone, he settles down a bit -- then he asks her for a "small" $75,000 loan because things just aren't "going well" right now.

This is no way to spend a birthday. In fact, one can't help but wonder why Lynette puts up with this pair of jackasses. It's even more difficult to understand why Reddin would give so much attention to these obnoxious bores. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that Reddin is hell-bent on depicting the soul-sucking effects of suburban life. In his estimation, only Lynette, who spent time in the city before moving to the suburbs, is worth caring about. And if her children represent what the suburbs do to Americans, then everyone living outside the Loop ought to run like hell for an urban center.

So how does the whole Kennedy-assassination-conspiracy-theory thing fit into this family drama? In truth, it doesn't. But Reddin does his best to puzzle the two tales into one awkward picture by splicing scenes from Lynette's past into those of her dreadful present. Turns out that quiet Lynette has a past full of intrigue. And when she can't bear to listen to another word from her children, the suburban mom gazes out into the quiet of her yard, where her dramatic memories appear in scenes across the stage. There she is, played by the lovely young Elizabeth Bunch, dressed in a melon-colored polyester coat with matching tam, working for LIFE magazine.

The day after the Kennedy assassination, LIFE bought the rights to the Zapruder film, the infamous amateur movie of the event shot by dress manufacturer Abraham Zapruder. Zapruder's eight-millimeter home movie (the only footage of the tragedy) would inspire some of the most haunting conspiracy theories in American history. The 26-second strip of celluloid called into question Oswald's ability to have fired three bullets in the time that the president and Governor John Connally were shot.

Reddin has fictionalized the historic drama by placing Lynette in the center of the storm. The young assistant becomes one of only three people to view the original uncut version of the film before a copy is delivered to the FBI. According to Reddin's tale, the FBI changes the film, taking out critical frames. Lynette becomes terrified of her responsibility as one of a handful of people who know the truth, and her fears send her running to the suburbs.

Some 30 years later, we see that the suburbs have not saved her. In fact, her soulless family is much scarier than any conspiracy.

Director Peter Masterson works to stitch together the ragged edges of these two stories, but the chore is virtually impossible. The thematic connection is opaque at best. Strange, too, is the casting of the two Lynettes. The pretty Bunch is nervous and birdlike, while Glynn plays her role as surefooted and down-to-earth. It's hard to believe that one could grow into the other. As for Lynette's awful brood, Maguire and Bean make the best of their unsavory roles.

The biggest disappointment is that Reddin doesn't appear to have anything new to say about the mysteries surrounding Kennedy's death. Indeed, the biggest mystery is why the Alley decided to produce this script in the first place.

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Lee Williams