'The Legend of Jim Cullen' is nothing short of a masterpiece

Mon, 07/22/2013 - 2:30pm

Heartwood Theater's musical, "The Legend of Jim Cullen," opened to a full house on July 19 under a waxing, almost full moon.

The play, written by Griff Braley is a complex and compelling work based on the true story of Jim Cullen, lynched in Mapleton, Maine on April 30, 1873. The lynching is believed to be the only one to have occurred in New England.

Many questions are posed to the audience through the narrator, Professor Luther C. Bateman (David Connelly): Is the capacity for brutality and war predetermined by the shape of a person's skull? What drives someone to kill? What drives law-abiding, God-fearing citizens to take the law into their own hands? What is the soul of a man? The complexities of human nature, and how personal relationships and the time in which we live affects each one of us are at the core of this story.

Cullen (Jed Aicher) was a tall and big man with red hair and beard. Although brawny, he was not known for being a very bright man. He left his home in Peel, New Brunswick and traveled to Mapleton in northern Maine picking up odd jobs, mostly through the help of a German man, John Swanback (Jaime Roach).

While working in Mapleton, Cullen meets and falls for Mrs. Rosellah Twist (Holland Hamilton). The two begin a love affair and Roesllah bears their child, a deaf boy, who is named Eldon, but always referred to by his mother as “dummy.” The country is in a terrible depression, work is sparse and meals even sparser. One night Rosellah tells Jim that he is failing to provide for his family.

She tells him he must get her raspberries, but he will have to steal them from a neighor's cellar. A cellar she knows isn't locked. If he doesn't get her the raspberries, she is leaving him. Cullen is reticent to do what Rosellah has asked, but relents and steals the fruit.

This petty thievery leads to rumors that fly around the town about Cullen. One night, sometime later, Cullen steals a pair of boots from David Dudley's (Sam McInerney) store. And the debate begins: should Dudleys just let it go (as Mr. Dudley would prefer) or should justice be served and Cullen pay for his crime, as believes Mrs. Dudley (Melissa Hall), who represents the opinion of most of the town.

A sheriff (J.P. Guimont) from Presque Isle is summoned and a warrant for his arrest issued. Sheriff Granville Hayden, and Thomas Hubbard (Carl Lundstedt) the man with the well-lined pockets who Rosellah substituted for Cullen.

Cullen is discovered at Swanback's camp in the woods. Cullen agrees to a deal brought by the sheriff: Cullen would return to Peel and never return to Mapleton again. The theft charges aginst him would be dropped. Hayden even tears up the warrant.

So why does Cullen brutally murder the two men? Was it the taunting voices in his head that sleepless night? The voices of everyone he had known pointing out his shortcomings. Was it the black bird, the classic harbinger of death, (portrayed by Tyla Collier through song and ballet) whose presence and voice gave rise to the black shadow that always walked with him? Or was it because he was a shadow himself, a man who were it not for his size and strength even be noticed, a man who's soul was etched in darkness and consumed by constant torment?

With no sheriff to represent the law, the townspeople argue among themselves about what is to be done. As several characters asked, “What about society's right to end his shadow of a life? What about the order of things? What about the sullying of the town's good name?"

Over 600 citizens organized as a mob, took Cullen out to a big old Maple tree and hung him.

There are many powerful scenes in this play, ones that linger for days after. The lynching scene is certainly one of them.

The movement in this play whether by the actors, musicians or the life of the show itself, it is fluid and seamless and fills the stage area.

The musicians are outstanding playing harmonium, bass, guitar, fiddle, cello, banjo, percussion, whistle and found instruments part of the set including a washboard and chain. During some of the 18 songs in the play the actors put down a bit of percussion themselves.

Eastern and Canadian folk music, Irish jigs and ensemble choral arrangements add richness to this dramatic production. Of special note is the expertise of fiddle player Avery Merritt and the Irish jig by Deirdre Manning as Mary Judkins.

The actors are in a word, superb. Each character is fully realized: one of the hallmarks of a Heartwood production. During the intermission audience members could be heard marveling about what they were experiencing.

Braley not only wrote the play, he composed most of the music and lyrics; designed the sets and brought together a company of actors that will mesmerize.

This is, without a doubt, Griff Braley's masterpiece, to date, anyway.

The remaing dates for the "Legend of Jim Cullen" are July 26 and 27 at 7:30 p.m., July 28 matinee at 3 p.m., and August 1-3 at 7:30 p.m. Box office: 207-563-1373.