Review: The demons and delusions of ‘Hinckley’

 Sam Sherburne (right) portraying John W. Hinckley Jr., with Russ Widdall in New City Stage Company's world-premiere production of 'Hinckley' (Photo  courtesy of Ginger Dayle)

Sam Sherburne (right) portraying John W. Hinckley Jr., with Russ Widdall in New City Stage Company's world-premiere production of 'Hinckley' (Photo courtesy of Ginger Dayle)

When your role model is Lee Harvey Oswald, you know you’re in trouble.

Except that John W. Hinckley Jr. didn’t. He also didn’t see anything strange in his obsession from afar with film star Jodie Foster. So when he attempted to impress her in 1981 by firing six shots at President Ronald Reagan in Washington, D.C., — wounding him in the chest and arm, paralyzing press secretary James Brady and injuring two Secret Service officers – Hinckley was essentially uniting his demons.

Hinckley was found not guilty by reasons of insanity – and according to Ginger Dayle’s well-crafted new play, “Hinckley,” he is one of relatively few people to win a case on that defense. (His victory, if you can call it that, sparked an outcry over the notion of insanity defenses.) Today, Hinckley is 58, and although he has outside visiting rights with family, he remains a resident of a psychiatric institution.

“Hinckley” is a part of New City Stage’s season of plays involving the presidency. Dayle, a dancer as well as a theater artist, is also New City Stage’s founder, and she makes an impressive mark here as a playwright, too.

Hinckley is not such a great subject – he isn’t all that interesting. He’s a troubled guy from a good home, and were he growing up now instead of in the ’60s, it’s probable that medical care would be more effective that it was for him as a kid. In Texas, where he was raised, he was able to purchase handguns about as easily as he could have bought toy ones – that’s the single part of his story, as told in the play, that struck me as still pertinent.

All the same, the writing and the high-quality production of “Hinckley” make for a fulfilling glimpse. Gayle wisely keeps her play to 75 minutes without intermission – just enough time to artfully get inside John Hinckley’s head, take a good look around, and vamoose. There’s plenty of delusion in there – and one piece of clarity: Hinckley was fascinated with Foster and slavishly admired Oswald, but what he loved most of all, it seems, was the idea of fame. (This makes him like other assassins and wanna-bes.) He was highly influenced by media and by the idea that he should be a media celeb, according to the play, which has the feel of being well researched.

The play does make one generalization that seems to me a cop-out – that we live in a world where media rules all. That was surely true for Hinckley – he showed it in so many ways – but it’s far too thin an idea to apply to the rest of us. And frankly, putting us all in the same intellectual landscape as John Hinckley lacks a certain admiration for the notion of, say, civilization.

Aside from that misfire, “Hinckley” works because the sum of its parts tallies high. Sam Sherburne both plays the part and looks it – his Hinckley is a shifty-eyed half-imp, half-devil, full of kid-like wonder and notions of himself that are far from lucid. Meghan Cary and Russ Widdall play Hinckley’s unhappy parents, plus a host of other roles.

The excellent multi-media display, with film from the era, is uncredited in the program; it blends seamlessly with Adriano Shaplin’s music and sound, Matt Sharp’s lighting and especially Cory Palmer’s scenic design. Palmer uses two platforms on either side of the stage, where each of Hinckley’s parents – divided on what to do with their increasingly erratic boy – speak across the stage with one another and to us. In the middle, there’s Hinckley, in two places at once: a space bounded by both his mom and his dad, but mentally, very much at sea.“Hinckley,” produced by new City Stage Company, runs through March 30 at the Adrienne Theatre, Sansom Street between 20th and 21st. 215-563-7500 or www.newcitystage.org.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.