Did he do it? Audience decides




If Lee Harvey Oswald had stood trial for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, instead of being gunned down himself, what would the verdict have been?

The world will never know.

But just such a scenario will be played out in “Specter of Treason — The Oswald Trial,” a play written and directed by J.E. Ballantyne Jr. of Youngstown. “Specter” opens Friday — the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK — at Victorian Players Theater, and will run three consecutive weekends.

“Specter” premiered in 1996, on the 33rd anniversary of the assassination, said Ballantyne, and was staged by Move Over Broadway Productions.

The play is back in the spotlight because of the anniversary and the conspiracy talk that still hovers around the assassination. A theater troupe in Valparaiso, Ind., also is presenting the play this week, said Ballantyne.

Though the Warren Commission found that Oswald acted alone in killing the president, theorists have analyzed the scene in Dallas for decades. Many feel certain that a much larger plot was at work.

But did Oswald act alone? Is he innocent? Or something in between?

Audiences at “Specter of Treason” will decide. In a unique twist, the audience becomes the jury of the trial and renders its verdict at the end of the play.

To mark the infamous date, Youngstown City Council will issue a proclamation at 1:30 p.m. Friday — the exact moment of the assassination — in honor of President Kennedy. It will be presented to Victorian Players and J&B Production Arts Services, which are teaming up to present the play, at the Victorian Players Theater, 702 Mahoning Ave.

Ballantyne has assembled a large and impressive cast for “Specter of Treason.”

Leading the cast of 30-plus actors are Alan McCreary and Brady Flamino.

McCreary plays lead prosecutor Gerald Michaelson, who heads a group of attorneys in what they believe to be an open-and-shut case against Oswald.

Flamino plays defense attorney Richard Donnally, who faces what seems to be insurmountable odds.

In the original 1996 production, McCreary played Donnally.

John Pecano plays Oswald.

The remainder of the cast includes several local television personalities, including Dave Steyer and Glenn Stevens of 21 WFMJ-TV, Rich Morgan of WKBN-TV, Stan Boney of WYTV-TV, Christopher Haddock, Tom Smith, Barbara Malizia, Tara Schomer, Thomas Lee Ewen, C. Richard Haldi, Dave Wolford, Tom Hathhorn, Vinnie Dragos, Bill Finley, Mary Rosenberg, Grace Offerdahl, Bill Nibert, Ryan Newell, Don Wolford, Jack Hay, Cher L. Halas, Tom Kusiowski, Jim Petuch, Terri Wilkes, Matt Schomer, Gary Deckant, Stephanie Sarrach, Sam Luptak Jr., Dawnelle Jewell and Regina Reynolds.

Many of the actors take on dual roles to portray the 54 characters in the script.

The audience at all nine performances will render its verdict based on the evidence presented. To quickly tabulate the votes, Turning Technologies representatives will be present to operate hand-held vote counters for each audience member.

Ballantyne did exhaustive research into both the prosecution and defense before writing “Specter of Treason.” Some of his research, compiled over 10 years, came from eyewitnesses and police officers involved in the case.

In addition to reading at least eight books on the assassination, Ballantyne also interviewed people who were directly connected to the event.

“I spoke numerous times on the phone with Detective James Leavelle,” said Ballantyne. “Leavelle was the cop that was handcuffed to Oswald’s right wrist when he was shot by Ruby. He gave me a lot of insight into Oswald’s demeanor while he was in police custody and also somewhat to his personality.

“I also communicated, by letter, with FBI agent James Hosty, who was assigned to follow Oswald upon his return from the Soviet Union. I spoke briefly on the phone with [Oswald’s widow] Marina Oswald and also received scattered information from her. [Forensic expert] Cyril Wecht was also a source of information.”

Ballantyne said he researched the case for about seven years before starting to write the script in 1993, a process that took another three years.

“The script contains information that would have been available in 1964 and 1965,” he said. “The government’s case in the play is based largely on the Warren Commission findings, since that is probably what would have taken place. The defense case is based largely on the conspiracy theory.

“I tried, and I think successfully, to write the script right down the middle, giving equal time and information to both sides. When we did the show in 1996, we did six performances and got verdicts of guilty of first degree murder, second degree murder and not guilty. So I think the content of the show works well.”

One improvement that audiences should notice this time around is the projecting of evidence onto an overhead screen, said Ballantyne.

But that’s about the only change from the original production.

“When I decided to do the show again, many people asked if I would update it to include things known now that were not known when I wrote it,” said Ballantyne. “I rejected that temptation so I could keep it in the framework of what they would have known in 1964 and 1965.”

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