Start trying to explain the Glensheen murders, and you’ll find it’s like trying to explain World War I. The deeper you dive into the subject, the more complex the web of resentments and offenses — and the less clear it is who gained anything from the deadly violence.
In creating a musical centered on the notorious 1977 killings, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and composer Chan Poling crucially opted to embrace the case’s logistical and moral ambiguity, while managing to honor the victims’ memories with a sincerity that’s all the more meaningful because it’s not overwrought.
It seemed a daring subject to tackle, but when Glensheen premiered at the History Theatre in 2015, it suddenly seemed clear that the case was made for the stage. The story of quasi-confessed killer Roger Caldwell and his wife, the unrepentant heir Marjorie Congdon Caldwell, is full of absurd, even farcical, details. Hatcher and Poling had to dramatize, yes; embellish, hardly.
The show was a hit, and it’s now back for a second and possibly final revival with its original cast. Hatcher and Poling will have an entirely new musical written for next spring (Lord Gordon Gordon, based on another strange-but-true Minnesota story), so see Glensheen now while you have the chance.
Glensheen has won popular and critical raves, including an Ivey Award for Overall Excellence, and for good reason. It’s a marvel of theatrical storytelling, quickly establishing the key relationships and then unspooling the unlikely events that follow. Music, text, and Ron Peluso’s direction all work in service to the story, so not a moment of the audience’s time is wasted.
Consider “A Match Made in Hell,” the song that tells the story of how Marjorie (Jen Maren) and Roger (Dane Stauffer) met. Poling’s lyrics tell the story, while the characters’ actions underscore the shabbiness of their love story. By the time Roger’s handing a bunch of flowers to his wife (watch where they come from, and where they end up) and then taking a drink from the vase, we’ve learned everything we need to know about a complex, codependent relationship.
Down the road this show may be produced again with a new team, but it’s going to be hard to recapture the alchemy of this cast, who nicely capture the case’s volatile emotional dynamics. Maren is a perfect villain: wicked, watchable, and, as the script acknowledges, ultimately unknowable. Stauffer balances his character’s craven greed with a goofy charm, while Wendy Lehr builds on her local legend with every performance. (One new addition since 2015: in character as Marjorie’s dazzling attorney, Lehr now does a little dabbing.)
Lehr, like most of the actors, plays multiple roles; Hatcher and Poling wisely wait until late in the show to bring her on as Velma Pietila, the retired nurse who agreed to take a substitute shift and thus became one of Roger Caldwell’s victims. Her one, quiet song is a moving testament to the two lives that were brutally snuffed out during that dark Duluth night.
IF YOU GO:
Through July 30