FWO Archives: 'Voir Dire' Synopsis (2017 World Premiere featuring the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra)
Updated: Apr 29
Based on real-life, true-crime, Voir Dire sold out all performances of the 2017 operatic world premiere. Read the scene-by-scene synopsis below. Read the Q&A interview with librettist Jason Zencka HERE.
Judge Dodsworth, a judge in a small Wisconsin town, deliberates over the most difficult case of his professional life: a matricide commited by a 16-year old boy, Jeffrey Schumacher. Meanwhile, the Judge continues to hear cases, including that of Alycia Simpson, a homeless woman with a tragic backstory; the philosophic pedophile Professor Milton; and estranged husband and alleged rapist Timothy Kalchek. In between these and other courtroom vignettes, the Judge – and Jeffrey, portrayed by an empty chair – are visited by the ghost of Jeffrey’s mother, further complicating an already nightmarish case.
Watch Matthew Peterson's official trailer for Voir Dire on YouTube below!
Scene 1: A Judge’s Chambers. Judge Dodsworth paces the floor of his chamber, proclaiming that the time has finally come to sentence young Jeffrey Schumacher, who has been sitting at the county jail since he was convicted of bludgeoning his mother to death months earlier. In a state of frustration, he acknowledges that the justice system is flawed, yet he vows to finish what was set into motion.
Scene 2: A 911 Call. Three distinct events in time are simultaneously chronicled, as a woman sends a distress call to a 911 operator while being attacked by her 16-year old son with a variety of household objects. She is then doused in gasoline and lit on fire. A police officer encounters the grisly scene, arrests Schumacher, and an ambulance medic pronounces her death.
Scene 3: A Bond Hearing. An arraignment (a formal reading of a criminal complaint in the presence of the defendant to inform him/her of the charges against him/her) is held within a courtroom. Four judges introduce the presiding judge Dodsworth, and then step into the roles of prosecutor Donna Redfield, criminals James Klasinski and Alycia Simpson, a bailiff, and a stenographer.
A clumsy attorney (Redfield) reads a comical case that accuses the defendant (Klasinski) of a variety crimes, including the use of a dog as a weapon, in connection to a drunken dispute with his wife. Bail is assigned and a TV monitor with the image of Alycia Simpson appears. Held in jail on minor charges of public urination, intoxication, and possession of prescription drugs, the woman begs to stay within her cell but is ultimately denied.
Scene 4: Jailhouse. Cold, alone, and homeless, Simpson recounts a sorrowful tale of abuse at the hands of her boyfriend Daniel, that led to a traumatic miscarriage and her abandonment.
Scene 5: The Preliminary Hearing. Jeffrey, represented by an empty metal chair, is on trial for his mother’s murder. He is surrounded by Judge Dodsworth, the prosecutor (presenting the facts of the case), a psychiatrist (stating the definition of the mother’s Munchhausen-by-Proxy syndrome), and the defense (attempting to describe Jeffrey’s character). After hearing these opening arguments of the case, Dodsworth adjourns the court, having decided that this is a special case that will require his unique personal approach.
Scene 6: A Custody Debate. Two women, Kathy Jones-Morganson and Kathy Morganson-Jones, sisters-in-law, are having a heated custody battle over a macaw, which is named Norman to one Kathy, and Gilead to the other. Each is deeply in love with the bird, but cannot find a way to reconcile. The judge presiding over the dispute decides to bring in the macaw as a witness, which only leads to more fighting. The judge, unwilling to turn the bird over to either of these women, frees the bird from its cage (“pobrecita guacamaya”).
Scene 7: Justice. Judge Dodsworth steps into the courtroom in the aftermath of the previous custody battle and speaks to himself in private. Pacing back and forth across the room, he meditates on the dead, the torn hearts, the days of endless anger and frustration, and decries the justice system. Wearing a robe that seems more akin to that of a hazmat suit, he leads a clean-up crew, as he mops the blood from the floor each day, knowing that tomorrow there will be more.
Scene 8: The Witness. The Judge, speaks to Jeffrey, and introduces the only witness to his crime: Jeffrey’s dead mother, who appears as a ghost. The ghost attempts to comfort her son (“poor demon boy”), but continues her Munchhausen-by-Proxy poisoning and manipulation, offering Jeffrey his “pills.” The Judge loses his patience with the unresponsive Jeffrey, and informs him that his sentencing hearing is tomorrow.
Scene 9: A Plea. Back in the courtroom, Dr. Henry Milton, a middle-aged, collegiate professor of religion, stands in front of the lectern during his intake hearing and emphatically proclaims to anyone listening that he is guilty. Illegal images of child pornography were found on the hard drive of his computer from the image-sharing website “Photo Dump.” The bailiff and a stenographer are present, as the jpeg images are described and the tragic fate of the children captured in the photos is revealed. The Judge advises Dr. Milton to wait on a guilty plea, but after the man continues to violently profess his guilt, he calls for someone to assign the man an attorney and be taken to jail.
The scene shifts to the prison cell, where the professor grapples with his inner demons and the dark, desirous impulses that lured him away from a seemingly happy marriage, to staring at sexually abused, pixilated children on a screen. Three inmates, petty criminals, interrupt, interrogating and ridiculing him. But Milton turns the tables, and the professor lectures his captive audience on human free-will and the nature of crime, until the inmates lose patience and beat him.
The scene returns to the courtroom, where Dr. Milton continues to passionately exclaim his guilt. He faces the Judge, who tells him that this isn’t a confessional booth and that in a court of law things must unfold in a particular fashion, that there are rules and certain procedure must be followed. Exasperated, the Judge asks the bailiff to take the man away.
Scene 10: The Confession. The mother’s ghost visits Jeffrey, who awaits his sentencing. She tells him the story of her development of Munchhausen-by-Proxy syndrome, “it started small.” In a way this is Jeffrey’s aria, heard through the ghost.
Scene 11: “I Can’t Explain.” Timothy Kalcek is alone onstage. He pleads with his wife (not present, instead he sings to the audience) to take him back (“take me back”); then the plea becomes a statement to about what happened next: he “took her back.”
Scene 12: A Trial. Court is called to session, and defendant Timothy Kalcek is called to the podium to be examined by the defense; at the same time, Julie Kalcek, Tim’s wife and the plaintiff, is called to the opposite podium to be examined by the prosecution. Th ese two witness accounts, which were given separately, are shown at the same time, to simultaneously recreate both individual’s experiences. The accounts overlap and differ subtly, as the lawyers’ examinations expose the story of, and feelings behind, a rape within a marriage.
Scene 13: Voir Dire. The Judge vows to finally deliver a sentence for young Schumacher, and introduces the sentencing hearing, a quasi-reprise of his opening statements from the first scene, as he describes mopping the blood off the floor again. As if his mind is haunted by more than the spirit of Jeffrey’s mother, the pleas and incessant questions of Alycia Simpson, Professor Milton, and Tim Kalcek torment his mind. Mother’s Ghost asks with him to bring her back and give her justice. Judge Dodsworth tells them that he is an imperfect man, far removed from being any saint, and his knowledge of the law will only go so far in repairing the world.
Scene 14: Speak The Truth. The Judge exits the courtroom and Mrs. Schumacher, Alycia Simpson, Tim Kalcek, and Prof. Milton stand together declaring to both he and the world that “truth is cold and strange, no home for me there. You scrutinize but do you see, you listen in but do you hear? Forget the truth, remember me.”
By Jason Zencka & Ryan Scott Lathan
Read the TheaterJones interview with the creative team of Voir Dire HERE.