The mind of a would-be assassin

New City Stage’s Hinckley’

3 minute read
Russ Widdall and Sam Sherburne in New City Stage's "Hinckley."  (Photo by Ginger Dayle)
Russ Widdall and Sam Sherburne in New City Stage's "Hinckley." (Photo by Ginger Dayle)

What kind of person thinks it's a good idea to kill a president just to win the heart of a movie actress? In New City Stage's workshop production of Ginger Dayle's Hinckley, we get to spend some time inside such a mind: that of would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr., who shot President Ronald Reagan and several others on March 30, 1981.

The latest production in New City's intriguing current season of presidential presentations, Hinckley is more psychodrama than politics, more psychedelia than portraiture. The set itself is the landscape of Hinckley's tormented psyche, decorated with his obsessions, strewn with the props needed to sustain his delusions. In Sam Sherburne's bravura performance, we see Hinckley as he saw himself: a misunderstood soul meant for greatness, yet continually thwarted by the whims of others.

With his aspirations to John Lennon-caliber singer/songwriter status disregarded and rejected, his overtures to the opposite sex (particularly Jodie Foster, whose precocious performance in Taxi Driver inflames his passions) ignored and discounted, and his bewildered parents unable to help him find a direction in life, all the injustice, the unfairness, the deluded perceptions continue to build — until the idea of forcing himself and his self-perceived greatness into the consciousness of his imagined paramour (and by extension, the rest of the world) through a monstrous, irrevocable act of violence seems like a perfectly reasonable proposition. Hinckley is alternately egged on, counseled, comforted, and berated by all those other voices in his head, whether benign and lofty like Lennon and JFK, or dark and twisted like his assassin brethren, John Wilkes Booth and Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle.

A theatrical tour-de-force, Hinckley is a classic example of how much can be done with nothing more than actors on a stage. While Sherburne's energies are rightly consumed with Hinckley, all the remaining roles are assayed by Meghan Cary and Russ Widdall. Cary plays everyone from Hinckley's mom to Jodie Foster to Hinckley's psychiatrist, while Widdall, fresh off his turn as David Frost in New City's recent Frost/Nixon, becomes JFK, Walter Cronkite, John Wilkes Booth, and a slew of more obscure characters including Hinckley's father. It's a virtuosic display by all three cast members.

If anything, Hinckley is almost too dazzling and dynamic for its own good: As written and directed by Ginger Dayle, there's so much going on all the time, so many voices and perspectives coming at us, that there's little time to take a breath, to contemplate the causes and effects that transformed a nondescript schlub like John Hinckley into a historical figure. But the play isn't trying to be a historical biography or academic document. As a discomfiting, absorbing, sometimes funny, and sometimes pathetic snapshot of a monumentally disturbed human being, it succeeds on all levels.

And like New City's previous production of Frost/Nixon, Hinckley is operating on a level that transcends history because it's also about the power of media — which were the true demons that ruled Hinckley's life. The most pathetic and ironic part of his story might be that, even throughout all his tribulations he remained a miserable loser, failing not only to kill Reagan but in his ultimate goal to win Foster's heart, he still managed to get what he really wanted at the deepest level: to be famous, important, a person whose name will outlive himself in history.

Toward the end of the play, we see this failed assassin being granted more and more freedom. It may seem, well, insane to grant leave for a would-be killer to live among the rest of us without supervision or limitation. But Hinckley knows that in the end, it's all just a matter of perspective. As one of the characters observes, anything's possible in a world where the media rules all.

What, When, Where

Hinckley. Written and directed by Ginger Dayle. Featuring Sam Sherburne, Meghan Cary, and Russ Widdall. An original production developed by the New City Stage Artistic Directors. New City Stage production through March 30, 2014 at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St., Philadelphia. 215-563-7500 or

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