Over the Back Fence

Debbie Croft: ‘Ripper’ murders brought to life in Oakhurst play

composed@tds.net October 18, 2013 

Among the alleyways and narrow streets of London’s East End, the Whitechapel murders shocked an entire society. The year was 1888. Poverty and starvation fueled the lawlessness that contributed to the area’s unsavory reputation.

Jack the Ripper’s crimes remain unsolved to this day.

The mystery behind the brutal murders of five or more women is the subject of a stage production being presented at Oakhurst’s Golden Chain Theatre.

“Jack the Ripper” opens as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle receives an unexpected guest. Retired police inspector Donald Swanson, an old friend, has come to visit. The conversation turns to the 22-year-old crime still puzzling both men. As Swanson recalls the events, actors take their places on center stage and the story unfolds.

Jennifer Piccolotti plays one of the victims, Liz Stride. With a believable accent and unpolished demeanor, she could have stepped right off the streets of London and into the spotlight.

Keith Treadway’s portrayal of broken-hearted William Nichols is remarkably convincing. A noticeable sag in the mood of the audience is sensed as he turns out his wife and the mother of his children because of her drinking problem.

Stubbs is played by Tony Beguez. This unfortunate character is uneducated and poverty-stricken, yet tries to help those he cares about. Inspector Swanson relies on Stubbs’ street smarts to gather clues.

The role of a younger version of Swanson is played by 17-year-old Mark Friesen, who is more than competent as the no-nonsense detective.

Cast in the role of Eddy is Jason Turner, the play’s director. His character is multifaceted and contributes greatly to the many plot twists.

Turner and his wife, Jenny, grew up in Oakhurst and have participated in community theater for more than 20 years. He first played Eddy at the age of 19. The playwright and former president of the theater, Roger Clugston, is a good friend of Tuner’s and a mentor.

“He took me under his wing back in 1996 when I first came to the theater,” Turner said.

In addition to his acting skills, with Clugston’s guidance Turner has learned how to design sets, among other trade secrets.

Jenny Turner earned her degree in theater at Fresno State, and then studied at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

She remembers when the theater was full every time the doors opened for a play. Upon moving back to Oakhurst last year, she and Jason were disheartened to see only a handful of people in the audience. Since settling into the area, the couple has slowly become more involved with the theater by lending their combined artistry and leadership.

Board members want quality shows and community residents want something other than melodrama. The Turners hope to make changes that will please folks all around.

Although, they admit, they do hope to keep performing summertime melodramas.

“We want to bring back the great artform,” Jenny Turner said. “Melodrama is historic, and only a few theaters are still doing it. We would hate to see it die out.”

When the number of people who showed up for auditions was greater than the number of available parts, they relied on history to provide additional content.

“In community theater it’s best to make room for as many people to participate as possible,” Jason Turner said.

He wrote an additional 30 pages or so of back story for the three main female characters.

The production includes all the qualities of great theater: drama, intrigue, mystery, sorrow, the virtues and vices of humanity, and the best and worst of communal relationships. Bits of humor are sprinkled throughout. The show is rated PG-13 and is not suitable for children.

Actors in full costume sell tickets and usher patrons to their seats. All participants are volunteers, as the theater is a nonprofit organization.

The show, which opened Oct. 11, is playing through next weekend. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 7p.m; Sunday matinees start at 2. The general admission price is $12. Discounts are available for students, seniors, groups of 25 or more and active military personnel. Visit www.goldenchaintheatre.org or call (559)683-7112.

A note regarding last week’s column: Brad and Sheryl Leisure have been married 26 years.

Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at composed@tds.net.

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