A Gift Anew at Heartwood - Maryli Tiemann Review

Legend of Jim Cullen A Gift Anew at Heartwood

by Maryli Tiemann

Within the past month I saw Maine State Music Theater’s second production, renamed: Joshua Chamberlain: a Civil War Romance.  It was rewritten, revised and produced after its Maine premier, which I enjoyed 18 years ago. The play warranted revision and production since Chamberlain is a local Civil War hero.

Presently, the Heartwood Theater is performing The Legend of Jim Cullen, just a year after its premier.  Truly, both J.C. stories (Joshua Chamberlain and Jim Cullen) are worth their retelling, again and again.  Both stories reflect upon Maine history, sharing the thought-provoking facts of our growing culture and nation as well as a sense of these men who helped to shape it.

Cullen’s begins with a better story.  Chamberlain’s is set within the tangles of a whole country, and he is a heroic general, who really doesn’t fall from grace.  Cullen’s story has more intimate conflict:  the tragedy of a town, Everyman’s personal humiliation, and alarming human behavior weave just a few of the elements in Heartwood’s gem.

The Legend of Jim Cullen is shocking Maine history.  It’s a retelling of a story the company’s Artistic Director, Griff Braley, continued to share in last year’s premier production. “One rainy Sunday afternoon when I was eight, my grandmother told me the story of Jim Cullen and the only lynching in Maine – the only hanging without trial within New England.” She knew it because part of it took place on the tote road which went past their family farm.  Her grandfather was involved in the events, and what a story it is. 

It all takes place in and around Mapleton, Maine in 1873, nine years after the Civil War.  The land which comes to be Aroostook County had been home to the Micmacs and then homesteaded by Swedish, English, French and Irish immigrants to farm potatoes and lumber the vast woods, though there were no winter roads and its border with Canada was invisible. 

However, pieces of this story also take place today, in our news and across the US, since present day capital punishment continues to haunt us with basic doubt and obvious questions about our personal and collective humanity.

I hesitate to compare this production of Jim Cullen with its premier last season, yet suspect others may be thinking, “But I’ve already seen it.”  To them:  “It’s not just a new play; it’s a new focus on the story – with a brilliant musical score. 

The hardest part of writing is rewriting.  And collaboration is challenging.  Griff Braley has done both, and Aaron Robinson has, stride for stride, highlighted this retelling with inspired music.

What is it about music that allows us to unlock our daily approach and release a deeper sense of humanity?  Robinson’s opening chorus numbers are stirring, offering the sense of being there – among the pioneers who shaped our Maine.  These are extremely talented actors, musicians and singers, and all together they’re outstanding.

Each member of the Ensemble is genuine in the unfolding of this story.  Still, a few principals should be highlighted.  Isaac Haas spawns the perfect barker’s seductiveness, drawing us in, and then reappearing to nudge us around facets within the actions we’re witnessing.  Stephen Shore’s Cullen is never a “character,” allowing the audience to feel sympathy for the person he creates.  Grace E. Brewer and Shelley Crawford are so good they’re haunting.  And truly, the whole cast delivers an ideal performance by creating an ensemble within time and place.

All the other pieces fit perfectly:  the orchestra under Sean Fleming’s direction, Sue Ghoreyeb’s costumes, inventive projections, lighting and sound, minimal sets, and the expert way actors double as stage crew. They all merge and unite flawlessly.

Now, the second act of Jim Cullen left me longing for a faster pace and another moment to feel the grand reverberations of Robinson’s chorus:  Perhaps a final chorus with some of the energy of their opening numbers, even if the message is filled with remorse.  Perhaps lines infused with the speed of karmic tension, of conflict among townsfolk butting against the confusion and shock of what had happened within their budding community.   

Recently, New York City friends shared that frequently Off-Broadway productions are now running 90 minutes without an intermission.  This allows the flow and energy to build uninterrupted, letting the denouement come within the trajectory of that flow. 

This break from two acts with intermission feels risky, and I’m sure would be a challenging process, but exploring it would also be insightful.  This evolution could be a continuation of the inspired refinements and collaboration Braley and Robinson have begun.  Whatever happens, I hope, as Braley hopes, that The Legend of Jim Cullen “will continue its life and evolution with other theater companies.”

The Legend of Jim Cullen is Maine’s story as much as General Chamberlain’s is.  Not grand or clear-cut, it’s a treasure to shape and share again and again.  The Heartwood has skillfully given us a gift to contemplate.

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