‘Nuts’ tackles heavy questions of justice, values

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Douglaston Community Theatre’s fall production, “Nuts” by Tom Topor — the story which Barbra Streisand made well-known by starring in the film of the same title — is an unusual play for community theater to tackle, since it touches a nerve about society’s attitude towards mental illness.

The question Topor poses is, Can a psychiatrist determined to see symptoms of mental illness and mental incompetence in a patient, be the sole arbiter of committing the patient to a mental institution for 17 years or the rest of her life?

The patient is Claudia Faith Draper and the venue is a courtroom in Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan on a 1979 winter morning. She has been accused of manslaughter in the first degree. The proceedings are to ascertain whether she is competent to stand trial.

Donna Azerad plays the hapless Claudia Draper, a call girl who killed a client after he attacked her in her apartment. She is very agitated and has taken copious notes during her interviews with psychiatrists at the hospital.

Azerad is a Queens College graduate in theater and dance. She has performed in many community theater roles, recently playing a forceful Jeanette in “Last of the Red Hot Lovers.”

Dressed in a hospital gown and robe, her hair uncombed, her face pale and drawn from her ordeal, she has to be calmed by her lawyer until she can tell her story. Her lawyer tries to keep her calm but she will not “behave” as she should. Azerad makes the audience sit up and take notice.

Draper's defense lawyer is Aaron Levinsky (Richard Weyhausen), a quick-witted, soft-spoken Orthodox Jew who gains sympathy for Draper and battles prosecuting attorney Franklin Macmillan (Robert Kirsch) and his star witness, Dr. Robert Rosenthal of Bellevue (Nick DeCesare) unmercifully about mental illness.

Weyhausen is a prolific Queens community theater star and plays his character with understanding and empathy. He is also the director of “Nuts” who has chosen a fine cast.

Kirsch who is forceful in his portrayal of the prosecutor. He presents his case deftly and uses sarcasm and disbelief of the story that is unfolding, regarding Draper's competence to stand trial. Kirsch makes his debut with DCT. He is an opera singer and has performed in comedies, dramas and musicals. It is a well-rounded performance.

DeCesare as Dr. Robert Rosenthal believes his diagnosis is indisputable: Draper is a paranoid schizophrenic, unable to understand the charges against her.

She took her own notes during the interview and asked him many questions. “Her behavior,” he reiterates, “was out of keeping with the context. She was negativistic, a product of a broken home, a very troubled middle-class girl who had sunk into prostitution. She had had a breakdown and is incapable of understanding what she did and needs hospitalization for a long period. Only there she can get the treatment she desperately needs.”

Michael Wolf and Nancy E. Keegan play Draper's stepfather and mother, Arthur and Rose Kirk who each take the witness stand speaking against Draper. Many family secrets unfold during their testimonies. Lawyer Levinsky is able to bring out facts that are vital to his case — they loved their daughter too much!

These are two experienced and expressive actors who handle their difficult roles with finesse. The relationship between Arthur Kirk and Claudia Draper is of particular consequence in her tormented life.

A great supporting cast of Jim Thomas (Officer Henry Haggerty, the court police officer), Bari Plaut (court recorder), and Harry Gross (Judge Murdoch) helped the play become a success.

“Nuts” as a testament to the American values of justice and freedom, has an appropriate, timely message for us, especially now.

Performances at Zion Church Parish Hall, 44th Street off Douglaston Parkway, continue at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Oct. 12, 13, 19 and 20 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14. Reservations call 718-482 3332.

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