Saturday, August 24, 2013

REVIEW: A Second Take by Dennis Sparks on "The Harder Courage"

This staged, one-act reading, based on a true story, is written and directed by Leslie Slape. It plays through this weekend at Stageworks Northwest Theatre at 1433 Commerce Ave. in Longview, Wash. For more information on this production and their season, go to or call 360-636-4488.

“Sterner Stuff”

Shakespeare purported that we “…are made of sterner stuff.” In this, story, two men were forced, by circumstances, to prove just that. 

The first hanging in Washington State happened in 1892 in Cowlitz County. The man that was executed for murder was Robert Day, a farmer near the Lewis River. The victim was Clint Beebe, a local logger.

A minor dispute had happened over land use and cattle and Day’s son, Dexter, was slapped by Clint. Day, returning from a hunting trip and hearing about the incident, went out in search of Clint. When he found him, a shot rang out, and Clint was dead. The only witness was Beebe’s young brother, David, who testified that his brother was unarmed and was shot, without provocation, by Day.

But this story might be deemed simply routine, if that were what it was about. It’s not. It’s about how a friendship developed, over a period of several months, between the Sheriff, Ben Holmes (Scott L. Clark) and Robert Day (Michael R. Cheney), his prisoner. It is, at this point, a staged reading, about forty minutes long and a work-in-progress, hoping to be expanded into a full-length play.

The two actors are terrific in their parts and, hopefully, will be able to inhabit these characters in a fuller version. Having created the roles and, as I understand it, contributed ideas for their, and the play’s, development, they would be ideal for the future prospects of the story incarnations. The two men talk about the crime, their upbringings, families, the Civil War (in which they both fought, but on different sides), secrets, and their values. Through this relationship, a bond is formed and, for the survivor, maybe, a change in the perspective of life itself.

Looking at this case through modern lens, Day would have probably gotten off on involuntary manslaughter or self-defense (since his son was assaulted) and served a minimum sentence. My sense of it was that the Beebe’s were probably a powerful influence in this part of the country, embedded for years in the community, whereas, Day was a transplant from a Southern State. And the only eyewitness was the victim’s brother?! Give me a break, a good defense lawyer would have had that testimony thrown out as prejudicial.

I would guess, also, that most of the citizens here would have fought on the side of the Union, whereas Day had joined with the Confederacy. And, as my fellow blogster, Greg Zschomler, mentioned, the capital punishment law was just newly instituted, and the State/County may have been just itching to see it in action.

In comparison, nowadays, we have two cases in which military men are accused of mass killings and will probably get life sentences, not execution. Not that I’m advocating capital punishment. I’m not. But if you’re going to use it, employ it where it makes the most sense. It’s fairly clear that Day was a victim himself of prejudice. His only friend being the man that has to execute him.

Since this play is being developed, here are a few suggestions: 

The dialogue by Slape is rich and the strongest part of the show. She has a great ear for it and her characters come alive for us because of it. It could be still two main characters, but I would have background action taking places of key points in both their stories of their upbringing, the Civil War actions, their family memories, the crime, etc. The leads could walk in and out of these scenes, as if they were re-living them, and lighting/sound and minimal setting/props could be employed to enhance this experience. It would mean adding some characters, double-casting, possibly, when necessary.

Also it would be nice to have seen the first encounters with Day and Holmes and how their friendship started. And it would be good to see the aftermath, after Day’s death, on what affect/changes were made in Holmes’s life/philosophy. I would be interested to see future results of this production, as it has a promising beginning.

For another perspective by Gregory E. Zschomler, go to

By Dennis Sparks, Guest Reviewer

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