Heartwood Regional Theater Company's “The Legend of Jim Cullen,” premiered last summer and opens July 24 this year, completely rewritten by playwright/director Griff Braley with a musical score by Aaron Robinson. After seeing a full dress rehearsal on July 21, this reviewer can tell you it is both remarkable and compelling with strong performances and vocals by a superior cast.
The story of Jim Cullen, lynched in Mapleton, Maine on April 30, 1873, is one Braley was told as an 8-year-old by his grandmother. Braley, known for his fondness for bringing life's dark side into the light, worked on the original piece for several years before bringing it to the stage in 2013.
Taking into consideration suggestions and feedback from last year's audiences, Braley decided to rewrite the piece with less history, cut some characters and flesh out others a bit more.
Braley said he rewrote “Cullen” in two months, creating songs out of monologues, cutting some characters and building on others. Once satisfied with his new version, Braley handed it over to Robinson. Robinson had composed the music for two of the original show's songs and had expressed an interest in doing more with the play. Robinson immersed himself in the story and created a unified musical score that starts out on the light side, then grows moody and dark along with the story line.
I will tell you in advance, the music and vocals leading up to the hanging itself (which is the end of the show) is haunting and dramatic. As with some of the other songs, you will note shades of a religious hymn. The intensity of that final scene, that final moment will surely cause the hair on your neck to rise and goosebumps to emerge on your skin.
The new “The Legend of Jim Cullen,” begins with meeting Professor Luther C. Bateman, just as in the original work.
“The premise is Bateman is bringing a group of people (the audience) into a grange hall and is telling the story of Jim Cullen,” Braley said. “We wanted it to be very much out of his imagination, removing the need to keep the piece historically correct. It starts like a Broadway musical, winds itself away from that, as we move toward the hanging, the music changes, the lighting, the dancing changes — all elements working together.”
A live orchestra of two percussionists, two french horns, two violinists, a cellist, floutist and a double bass player is led by none other than Sean Fleming on keyboards.
“Aaron and I thought about what we were creating for the future; we wanted to create a piece of theater that anyone could do with spectacle or not. With one composer all the way through gives the show a different energy.”
Energy is also created through the choreography in the show designed by Karen Montinaro, cast member Shelley Crawford (Cullen's woman Rosellah) a choreographer from Chicago, and Braley. Scenes in the logging camp and barn raising are well done, the movements, I found, conveyed the tension just below the surface.
Braley said rehearsals for the show began on June 15, the cast digging into their characters and working double rehearsals most days. All the while, Braley continued whittling down the script until he arrived at the show being presented for the first time on July 24.
The cast includes local performers and performers from New York, Illinois, Florida, Iowa, Virginia and Connecticut; and it’s a group of brilliant, strong vocalists and actors. They are Stephen Shore as Cullen, Grace Blewer as the Blackbird, Shelley Crawford as Cullen's woman Rosellah, Isaac Haas as Bateman, Caleb Lacy is Swanbeck, Logan Schultz as Hubbard, Morgan Morse as Hayden, Andrew Lyndaker as Eldon, Cullen and Rosellah's deaf son, Deirdre Manning as Mrs. David Dudley, Kyle Aarons (David Dudley/Cullen's Father), Ari Veach as Fillmore, Virgil Bozeman as Sawyer, Allison EddyBlouin is Ellen Sawyer, Gabe Ferrero as the Minot Bird, Emma Tolley is Evelyn and David Myers, Hughes. Chorus: Nancy Durgin, Rowan Carroll-Christopher and Rocha Bella.
“The Legend of Jim Cullen” is an examination of human nature, and at the heart of it the question is asked, “What is the soul of a man?”
Cullen's lynching is believed to be the only one to have occurred in all of New England. What motivated a group of citizens to take the law into their own hands and execute one of their own? Was it solely about Cullen having murdered the sheriff and his deputy? Or was it the God-fearing townspeople's panic at having a loose cannon, a doer of evil in their midst that threatened their physical, spiritual and mental well-being?
The pairing of Griff Braley and Aaron Robinson, two extremely gifted men, is magic. Dark magic, perhaps, but magic nonetheless! Last year I described “The Legend of Jim Cullen” as a masterpiece. This year it is nothing short of a tour de force!
“The Legend of Jim Cullen,” opens Thursday, July 24. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. Dates for the rest of the run, with a show time of 7:30 p.m. are July 25, 26 and 31, August 1 and 2. There will be one 3 p.m. matinee on Sunday, July 27. Reservations are strongly recommended. Call Heartwood at 207-563-1373 for tickets and more information, or visit www.heartwoodtheater.org.