When John Hinckley Jr. pulled the trigger six times on March 30, 1981, he was trying to kill then-president Ronald Reagan. But his real motivation was fame. Ironically, since being found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982, Hinckley has faded from public view. But now a new play from Philadelphia playwright Ginger Dayle thrusts the would-be assassin into the spotlight.
The show, which opens on March 6th at the Adrienne, is the first major creative endeavor to center solely on Hinckley, a schizophrenic who these days divides his time between a psychiatric hospital and his parents’ home in Virginia. Dayle began the project in 2007 as a graduate student at Villanova and resurrected it to close out New City Stage Company’s presidential-themed season.
Dayle tries to get inside the head of Hinckley, telling the story of his life from his own perspective. She didn’t speak with Hinckley directly, instead using a book written by his parents and interviews Hinckley gave as her primary sources. “He’s so hungry for fame,” explains Dayle. “I didn’t want him obscuring our perception of his inner monologue.”
The character of Hinckley will be played by Sam Sherburne, who also appeared in the company’s well-received Frost/Nixon. Twenty or so other characters who influenced Hinckley are played by Meghan Cary and Russ Widdall, who received rave reviews for his lead in New City’s RFK and co-directs the show with Dayle. That roster includes everyone from John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald to Hinckley’s parents, his psychiatrists, and the object of his delusional obsessions, actress Jodie Foster.
Hinckley will have its share of musical elements, though unlike Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, in which “Hinckley” makes a brief appearance, it’s not a full-blown musical, says Dayle. “Hinckley wrote a bunch of songs, and I wanted to include that aspect of him,” she says. “He was a wannabe singer-songwriter, but the songs were really, really bad. He was just dying to be famous.”
Now, thanks to Dayle, Hinckley is going to be just a little bit more infamous. But the playwright isn’t concerned she’s playing into his madness. “He must live a very painful existence,” she says. “He thought that shooting Reagan would make him equal in celebrity status with Jodie Foster. And that’s not what happened. I believe Hinckley sees himself as a huge failure.”
Hinckley runs March 6th through March 30th at the Adrienne. For ticket info, go here.
First appeared in the March, 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.