Review: The Legend of Jim Cullen, a stunning premiere at Heartwood

Posted Wednesday, July 24, 2013 in Culture

Review: The Legend of Jim Cullen, a stunning premiere at Heartwood

Tyla Collier (Boston) and Jed Aicher (NY) in Heartwood’s premiere, “The Legend of Jim Cullen.”  July 26 – August 3, Parker Poe Theater in Newcastle.

by David Treadwell

What was life like in northern Maine in 1873? What steps will a good man take if he can no longer provide for his wife and child? How does a God-fearing community deal with a known murderer when the sheriff is no longer around to preserve law and order?

These are just some of the questions addressed in Heartwood's world premiere of "The Legend of Jim Cullen," written, produced and directed by Griff Braley, Heartwood's immensely talented Artistic Director.

Braley first heard about the legend of Jim Cullen from his grandmother as a six year old growing up in Aroostook County. The story is based on fact: the only known lynching in New England.

The background poses another question: How does one create a compelling theatrical experience based on a lynching? Well, Braley and his cast and crew met that challenge. In the process Braley created a realistic snapshot of a time and a place in history, not a gauzy rendition of the past along the lines of, say, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (e.g. "Oklahoma").

One can't call this play a "musical," but it certainly features fine music: eighteen musical numbers, ranging from Canadian folk music and male acappella to an Irish jig. In fact, the music sustains audience interest and injects needed humanity into a lugubrious tale. Griff Braley and Corey Redonnett developed and scored the music with some arrangements by Aaron Robinson.

Every member of the cast of actors and musicians -- drawn from around the country, it should be noted -- performs well. Some of the performers deserve special kudos. David Connelly does a superb job in several roles, especially as the Our Town-like narrator. Jed Aicher skillfully portrays the decent-hearted if clueless Jim Cullen. Rosella Twist delivers a smashing performance as Cullen's "wife" (quotes used advisedly); it must be said, she plays a woman driven more by passion and wile than decency and conscience. JP Guimont is perfect as the Sheriff, struggling to serve justice to the extent it can be served. All of the musicians perform exceptionally well, but keep a special eye out for Avery Merritt, a fiddler who came all the way from California to participate in this premiere. Tyler Collier, as the Black Bird, moved about with a haunting grace.

Technical Director Letitia Munson, with her creative mastery of visual and lighting effects, again proves why Braley trusts her to help bring his artistic vision to the stage.

Congratulations to Griff Braley for conceiving and masterminding this impressive production. That said, if the intention is to take The Legend of Jim Cullen to a wider audience in other parts of the country, then two issues might be addressed: (1) At three hours (including intermission), the play runs longer than the attention span of many, perhaps most, theatergoers; and (2) Consideration might be given to finding ways to incorporate a tad more hope and humor into the production; put another way, the darkness may need more glimmers of light.

Still and all, kudos to Heartwood for providing another memorable evening of theater.

(Performances of The Legend of Jim Cullen are held at the Parker Poe Theater at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle July 19-20, 26-27, and Aug. 1-3 with a matinee on July 28. Evening performances begin at 7:30 p.m. and the matinee (July 28) is at 3:00 p.m. For reservations, call the Heartwood office at 207-563-1371. 

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