Local Current Blog

Review: Chan Poling’s ‘Glensheen,’ at the History Theatre, is moving and macabre

Photo by Scott J. Pakudaitis, courtesy History Theatre

I’ll admit that when St. Paul’s History Theatre announced they were going to stage a musical based on the Glensheen murders, I was skeptical. There seemed to be an acute danger of letting the case’s Gothic details—the mansion on the lake, the “board-game weapons” (as one of the characters puts it) used to commit the crimes, the outlandishly suspicious (yet never convicted) prime suspect—run away with the show, while losing sight of the fact that two vulnerable seniors were violently killed. For what? As Fargo‘s Marge Gunderson might say, “for a little bit of money.”

The musical is now here—with rapier-sharp book by Jeffrey Hatcher, music/lyrics by Chan Poling (the Suburbs, the New Standards), and the History Theatre’s leader Ron Peluso himself in the director’s chair—and it succeeds by rooting the incredible true story in the family relationships at its heart: the relationships among never-married matriarch Elisabeth Congdon, her daughters Jennifer and Marjorie, and Marjorie’s husband Roger. Sometimes in life, we laugh so that we may not cry—and sometimes, we do both.

The show, with a versatile and fleet-footed cast of seven, is staged on a recreation of Glensheen’s front hall—including, yes, the staircase on which one of the murders (Congdon’s nurse Velma Pietila) was committed. By opening their musical with a tour of Glensheen, Hatcher and Poling zero right in on the sad fact that ends up becoming central to their take on this story: the mansion, built as a monument to the self-made mining millionaire who built it a century ago, will forever be infamous for the actions of his granddaughter, a deeply disturbed woman who became estranged from her mother and then, allegedly, plotted her successful murder.

Hatcher and Poling are relentless in highlighting the fact that the murder was just about the only success (if one can call it that) in the life of Roger Caldwell, the man who confessed to the killings of both Congdon and Pietila. Played by Dane Stauffer, he’s portrayed as an ingratiating alcoholic with expensive tastes, a man who was attracted both to the force of Marjorie’s personality and to the size of her family trust. With an impressive eye to detail, Hatcher and Poling track Caldwell’s progress from Marjorie’s quickly-wed beau to a beleaguered murder suspect to a confessed killer who takes his own life, leaving a death note that contained the poignant statement, one which recent DNA tests have revealed to be almost certainly a falsehood, “I didn’t kill those girls.”

Marjorie (a well-cast and seductive Jennifer Maren) is the enigma at the center of this story, and if Hatcher and Poling don’t seem to get her quite right, it may be that no one ever can: a chameleonic charmer whose mental illness hasn’t undercut her almost miraculous ability to escape consequences for crimes that nearly everyone except her juries and her serial boyfriends (who’ve evinced a disturbing tendency to die in suspicious circumstances) is convinced she committed. In one of the the musical’s many strange-but-true scenes, Poling writes a song for the jury that was so won over by Marjorie that some of its members became longtime friends of hers—after, of course, acquitting her of conspiracy to murder.

It’s worth the price of admission alone to watch the priceless Wendy Lehr, a septuagenarian who plays the aged Elisabeth Congdon and then leaps out of her wheelchair to don a shaggy gray wig to play a character who she assures us with a wink is absolutely not based on the infamous local attorney who represented Marjorie, Ron Meshbesher. Lehr all but moonwalks across the stage during “Conspiracy,” the sprightly number that opens the second act.

That’s one of several memorable numbers Poling has penned for Glensheen; other highlights include the somber “Ballad of Glensheen,” the rapid-fire “No Parole” in which Jennifer (Sandra Struthers Clerc) uses dolls to recap the belief-beggaring string of suspicious incidents Marjorie’s been involved with since the murders, and the tender ballad given to Pietila (Lehr again), who interrupt’s Roger’s grudging confession to remind us that there were real lives lost at Glensheen—not Mrs. Peacock and Mrs. White.

For Glensheen, the History Theatre’s auditorium is adorned with outsize replications of contemporary newspaper articles about the killings. Before and after the show, audience members stopped to read the stories and shake their heads. How could these things have happened? In Duluth, of all places? They could, and they did, and Hatcher and Poling have done us a service by giving this strange, sad story a dramatic presentation that should help reclaim it from its status as a half-forgotten tale that’s furtively whispered about during tours of that towering mansion on the shore of the Great Lake.

Glensheen is being presented at the History Theatre through Oct. 25. Read Jay Gabler’s preview for more on the history behind Glensheen and the story’s journey to the stage.