Thursday, March 10, 2016

Death on the Supermarket Shelf

Melanie Hampton as Lynn Reiner; Jamie Pederson as Ed Reiner; Cora Pearlstein as Michelle Reiner (as a child). Photo by Michelle Smith Lewis.

A New Play Based on the 1982 Tylenol Murders
Review from The Weekly Volcano published March 10, 2016 with addendum not included in the Volcano

The new play Death on the Supermarket Shelf written by Alan Bryce and directed Tina Polzin premiered March 3 at Centerstage Theatre in Federal Way. This is Bryce’s first play since last year’s smash hit musical For All That. Death on the Supermarket Shelf is most definitely not a musical, and yet there is music in it — a lot of music actually, as much as many full-blown musical comedies (and it’s most definitely not a comedy either).
In 1982 seven people died from taking poisoned Tylenol. What followed was what Bryce termed a nationwide panic that altered consumer confidence forever. “It was the case that stopped a nation in its tracks and changed American consumerism forever,” Bryce said. “But it’s more than that. As I researched the play, I discovered a story of evil, corporate villainy, human stupidity and human dignity that took my breath away.”
Cooper Harris-Turner as Scott Bartz, Melanie Hampton as Lynn Reiner, and Sara Henly-Hicks, as Michelle as an adult. Photo by Michelle Smith Lewis.
Bryce’s play covers 34 years from the time of the first murder to the aftermath and investigation of the crime, which remains unsolved today. It focuses on the first victim, Lynn Reiner (Melanie Hampton) and her husband, Ed (Jamie Pederson) and their 8-year-old daughter Michelle, who witnessed her mother’s death. (Cora Pearlstein plays Michelle; understudy Molly Winter played Michelle on March 6 and 10). 
Events leading up to and including Lynn’s death, the investigations of suspects and the efforts of Johnson and Johnson, makers of Tylenol, to convince authorities the murders were committed by a lone-wolf madman are all presented in a series of highly stylized yet realistic episodic scenes with singers functioning in the role of a Greek chorus. The music is all from blues legend Robert Johnson. This innovative use of music to highlight aspects of the story and ease through transitions between scenes intensifies the drama. The singers throughout most of the play are Cooper Harris-Turner, who plays Scott Bartz, the reporter who wrote three books about the murders, and Sara Henly-Hicks, who plays Michelle as an adult. They are marvelous singers. Hick’s voice is sultry and husky; Harris-Turner has great range from tender to growling and shouting. Hampton, who shows up as either the ghost of Lynn Reiner or as a representative of grown-up Michelle’s memory of her (I could not tell which and don’t think that is an issue) also sings hauntingly.
The set by Julia Welch and lighting by Paul Arnold are deceptively simple and highly effective. Welch’s set is a simple open box or cage, perhaps best described as the open frame of a room with no walls.
Twelve cast members and one understudy play multiple roles. It would be impossible to point one or more actors as outstanding. They all are. The play is intense, dramatic, and practically guaranteed to keep audience members on the edge of their seats even though the outcome of the real event is well known.
My one criticism is that in a few brief moments giving out information becomes more important that the dramatic sweep of the action. Probably not worth quibbling over except in a scene that lasts no more than a couple of minutes right before the wonderfully inventive and emotional final scene.
It’s not often that local audiences have the opportunity to see a world premiere of a play written and produced right here. This one should go on to be performed in other theaters across the land, and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t. 
Death on the Supermarket Shelf plays Fridays through Sundays through March 26, with an additional performance March 10 at the Knutzen Family Theatre.

More on Death on the Supermarket Shelf

In addition to the review for the Weekly Volcano, I was commissioned to write an article for O’Dwyer’s blog . For this I interviewed the writer, Alan Bryce and Michelle Rosen, the daughter of Lynn Reiner, the first victim of the Tylenol murders. My story was not actually published on O’Dwyer’s blog but information from it was used.
I exchanged emails with Michelle and met her in the lobby at opening night. She was upbeat and friendly, but expressed doubts about the play, saying she had argued with the playwright and that he had made some but not all of the changes she suggested. My impression was that Rosen and Bryce viewed his play from very different points of view, he from the point of view of a dramatist and she from the point of view of a person who had lived the story and wanted her ideas about it told.

After seeing the play she wrote this in an email: “The play was definitely interesting. Different parts had me anxious one minute and sad the next. How nice it is to see a creation that is not about exploiting the victims over and over. Death on the Supermarket Shelf portrays Johnson & Johnson with a much more sinister role than the ‘gold standard of crisis management’.”

Also prior to the opening I sent Bryce a series of questions:

1. What attracted you to this story?

It was a major national event. To compare it to 9/11 may seem an overstatement...but in a very real way it scared people just as much, if not more. The Twin Towers were a symbol of America's strength and for most Americans, personally remote. But the killing by Tylenol struck right at the heart of the average person's life - their local supermarket or drugstore or medicine cabinet. Death could lurk in the most innocent corner.

2. What do you hope audience members will get from it?

It's a morality play. At its core is a moral conundrum, although I'm not sure that the character who confronts it sees it as such. I want the audience to leave pondering the role of morality in public life.

3. Can you tell me in two or three sentences what researching it was like?

I didn't have the time to do first hand research. Scott Bartz's book, The Tylenol Mafia, was vital. And then I searched online for articles, photographs or other information about the various people involved. Late in the process, I had conversations with Scott and with Michelle Rosen, whose Mom was a victim of the Tylenol killer. Michelle offered invaluable input which was incorporated into the script.

I would like to ask what in your research surprised you, but only if you can answer that without giving away anything in the plot. (It is a play, after all, even if it is a true story,)

Let's use my phone call with Michelle yesterday.

Michelle had told me that the families of the six other victims had distanced themselves from the case. They didn't want to be involved in her quest to find those accountable who WERE accountable. They just wanted to be left alone. However, Michelle told me that word of the play had gotten out there...and for the first time other families were contacting her, asking about the script, if she intended to go and even one person who I believe told her that he was thinking of attending himself.

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