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The Joe Hill legend -- and musical near-misses; Salt Lake city Skyline Play by Thomas Babe. Directed by Robert Allan Ackerman.

Bold-stroked stage portraiture by John Lithgow and Fred Gwynne provides the most stimulating feature of this production at the Public/Anspacher Theater. Apart from this strong animating force, Thomas Babe's free- wheeling courtroom drama contributes nothing historically significant or of particular dramatic interest to the lore and legend of Joe Hill.

A Swedish-born immigrant, Hill rose to the status of a folk hero as song writer and organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the early part of the century. Among his well-remembered ballads are "Casey Jones," "Pie in the Sky," and "The Rebel Girl." Following his execution for murder in 1915, he became a favorite martyr-figure of the American left.

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The fictionalized plot centers around the trial that convicted Hill of killing a grocery- store owner and his son. Mr. Babe accepts the theory that Hill's arrest and trial were a frame-up because of his radicalism and organizing efforts for the Wobblies. Joe Hill claims his innocence and takes over his own defense when he concludes that his lawyers are merely hindering his case.

The central issue in the Babe version turns on an alibi Joe refuses to employ because it would compromise a well-placed Salt Lake Citaffair. In one of the play's incidental scenes, Joe explains that his own wounds were incurred, not in the course of the robbery, but when he and his lover were caught by her husband. Without benefit of such an alibi, and with suborned witnesses in a travesty trial, Hill's confidence that his manifest innocence will win his freedom proves totally unwarranted. He is found guilty and executed by firing squad.

Mr. Babe finds so much fun and games in the courtroom proceedings and the rambunctious defendant that he obscures whatever he may have intended as the central theme of "Salt Lake City Skyline." Hill's speeches cite instances of brutal worker exploitation by employers; songs are interpolated, and stimulating passages are exchanged between Mr. Lithgow as Hill and Mr. Gwynne as the fatally ill presiding judge. Mr. Lithgow's organizer is a loud and lusty iconoclast whose charm and naive view of justice win the judge's sympathy. Mr. Gwynne cloaks dry judicial cynicism with an equally dry wit -- and conveys an ultimate sense of troubled compassion.

In the main, however, "Salt Lake City Skyline" is an erratic piece of work. The treatment winds up by diminishing Joe Hill, vulgarizing his situation, and trivializing his plight. The lively cast directed by Robert Allan Ackerman includes Mark Metcalf as the defense attorney, James Greene as the prosecutor, Gail Strickland as the adulterous Mrs. Dawswon, Tom McKitterick as her son, and J. C. Quinn as Jerusalem Slim, a raffish hobo crony who arrives on the scene to cheer Joe Hill's final moments. All of the action takes place in the symmetrical unit set designed by Marjorie Kellogg. The period costumes are by Robert Wojewodski and the lighting is by Arden Fingerhut.


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