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‘Oswald: The Actual Interrogation’ playwright says the audience can draw its own conclusions

Oswald: The Actual Interrogation

• Saturday through Nov. 17

• Casa Mañana

3101 W. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth

• $41-$76

• 817-332-2272; www.casamanana.org

Posted 8:07am on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013

A lot of questions are asked in Oswald: The Actual Interrogation, the timely production that opens Saturday at Casa Mañana.

But don’t expect the biggest ones to be answered.

“One of the things that critics have applauded me for is that I allow the audience to draw their own conclusions,” said the play’s author, Dennis Richard. “[Oswald’s interrogation] was one heck of a story that was bypassed by history. And I think we know about as much about the Kennedy assassination today as we did 50 years ago.”

And Richard, a Bostonian who is just old enough to remember being a kid in a dentist’s chair when he heard the news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in downtown Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, is supported in that view by the much younger actor who will be playing the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

“I think what Dennis has done in the play is fantastic, because he is not out to settle [who killed Kennedy],” said Ben Williams, a New York-based actor. “[The interrogation] was a lost opportunity. It was the opportunity to find out the truth and it slipped through our fingers.”

Richard has written more than 40 other plays — none of which is based on historical events. He is working on a play about the life of troubled chess champion Bobby Fischer.

He said that he was moved to write Oswald because, when he researched the subject, he found “one conspiracy theory after another.” And the tipping point came when he discovered a theory about JFK being killed by a British invasion, of a sort.

“When I came across a website that claimed that the Beatles were responsible for Kennedy’s assassination, I knew I had to write the play,” Richard said. “And 90 percent of the words that Oswald says in my play are documented as things he actually said.”

Getting those direct quotes was not easy, however, because there were no transcripts of the questioning of Oswald at the Dallas Police Department, which began shortly after his arrest on Friday and continued through Saturday. On Sunday morning, Oswald was fatally shot by Jack Ruby while being moved from police headquarters to Dallas County jail.

“I had to piece it together from eight books and the Warren Commission Report,” Richard said. “It took me over eight months of research before I ever wrote the first word. I wrote the first act in two days. It normally takes months to write a first act. I had a day of rest, and then wrote the second act in four days.”

His result was a first draft of the script that was 200 pages long.

Portraying Oswald

As for playing the title role, “It’s overwhelming. It’s a scary endeavor,” Williams said. “I have my impressions of him, like most Americans do. And trying to set those aside for even a second to learn this part and try to understand him has taken a lot more patience than any other character I have played. But the more I learn about him, the more it changes my first impressions of him.”

What Williams found in the young Oswald, who was born two months after his father died of a heart attack, was a man adrift.

“[Oswald] just strikes me as one of the loneliest men on earth. He just seemed to be on his own,” said Williams about the former Marine who attended several Fort Worth elementary schools and Arlington Heights High School. “A man doomed to failure is a man alone. I think he was one of those men.”

Williams’ recent roles have included Hamlet and Johnny Cash. His preparation to play Oswald was so extensive, he said, that he studied “his breathing and even his thought process.” He said he found one of the most bizarre periods of Oswald’s short life — his brief defection to the Soviet Union in 1959 — to especially reveal the man as a failure who wanted to stand up and be heard.

“[The Soviets] told him no. But he was so desperate to stay, he attempted suicide. He cut his own wrists so that there was no way he could be moved, and they finally gave in to him. In the context of youth and ambition, it makes a lot more sense to me,” said Williams about Oswald, who was 24 years old when he died.

Richard is sympathetic to the problems actors face playing Oswald.

“You want to find redeeming features. [But actors playing the role] cannot do it with Oswald,” he said.

Richard said he tried to place more emphasis on Oswald’s interrogator, Dallas Police Capt. Will Fritz, because “he is a more likeable character.”

But, as distasteful as the subject is, Williams said he feels it is important to revisit what Richard calls “that terrible weekend.”

“It’s all very moving to me. With the passage of time, it becomes much easier to forget,” Williams said. “But with things like this [play], we are saying we are not going to forget those things. I think it is vital to the American identity. And I am glad to be part of that dialogue.”

Casa Mañana is further making sure that audiences do not forget that dark day in history by planning to host an important guest for the show’s opening night. Jim Leavelle, the officer handcuffed to Oswald when he was shot by Ruby, is scheduled to attend the performance.

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