If you're not familiar with the story of Chester Congden, the East Coast lawyer who very wisely invested in iron ore in late 19th Century Duluth, you should visit the grand estate on Lake Superior that he built for his family (wife Clara and seven children) and left to the University of Minnesota - Duluth upon the death of his last child. Which happened to be his youngest daughter Elisabeth, who never married and lived at Glensheen her entire life, adopting two daughters with whom to share her life, love, and fortune. It's her daughter Marjorie (named for Elisabeth's beloved older sister) upon whom this little tale hinges. Diagnosed a sociopath as a teenager, Marjorie had an insatiable spending habit that put her in constant debt and eventually, allegedly, led her to convince her second husband Roger Caldwell to kill her mother in order to receive her inheritance. The details of the story are too strange to be believed, except, of course, that it's true.
|Marjorie Congden sings her story|
(Jennifer Maren and cast, photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
Highlights of the show are many, including:
- Rick Polenek's rich set looks like a mini-Glensheen, a reproduction of the famous staircase leading up to the stained glass window on the second floor, with stately furnishing and lush carpeting that extends into the audience.
- Director Ron Peluso and his cast make great use of the multi-level stage and the aisles in the audience, drawing us into the story, even at one point using us as potential jurors.
- Musical Director Andrew Fleser (whose piano is dressed out as a bar) leads the just barely visible band through a really great score with big ensemble numbers, soaring ballads, quiet plaintive songs, and some fun and rousing songs, accompanied by Tinia Moulder's choreography.
- Most of the fantastic seven-person cast play multiple roles - maids, cops, detectives, lawyers, reporters, etc. - except for Jennifer Maren, who brings Marjorie to life in all her murderous, arsonous, seductive, sad little girl glory. She's an endlessly fascinating villain, the kind that you love to hate.
- Dane Stauffer is great as the drunken patsy Roger, without making him a caricature. We also see Roger's human side in his confession and death - just another one of Marj's victims.
- Stealing scenes in a multitude of roles, including Elisabeth, her nurse (with a sad and lovely song), and, briefly, Agatha Christie, Wendy Lehr is a delight to watch, most especially in her gleeful turn as a rock and roll defense attorney who may or may not be known "Beshmesher," shimmying her way through a rollicking defense of Marjorie.
- Ruthie Baker, Gary Briggle, Adam Qualls, and Sandra Struthers Clerc gamely jump into whatever role is asked of them, and the seven-person cast seems much larger with all the characters in the story.
- The costumes (designed by E. Amy Hill) help define the various characters and place it in that '70s/'80s timeframe. Marj's wardrobe is particularly fabulous (I'm not sure the real Marj is this fashionable), always in red, reminding us of the blood and fire she leaves in her wake. Barry Browning's lighting design bathes the stage in a red glow when appropriate, as well as creating some startling lighting strikes.
- For more about The Suburbs and other bands of early '80s Minneapolis, go see Complicated Fun next spring, another new piece developed through the "Raw Stages" festival.
- The History Theatre's "Raw Stages" Festival takes place in mid-January. So when the weather is cold, go see what's hot in new historical theater (including a reading of my favorite new musical Sweet Land).
- If this story fascinates you as much as it does me, I highly recommend the book Will to Murder, written by former Duluth crime reporter Gail Feichtinger with input from the lead investigator and prosecutor, so it's chock full of details and evidence.