What if there is no answer?
In the 2004 documentary “A Dream Within a Dream,” Australian film director Peter Weir recalled what happened when his 1975 movie “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” about a mysterious disappearance from a girls’-school outing in Australia, was screened for the American movie trade: “One distributor threw his coffee cup at the screen at the end of it, because he’d just wasted two hours of his life – a mystery without a goddamn solution!”
Well, Lawrence Howard’s new tale “John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee” is a mystery without a goddamn solution, and including intermission it runs about two hours. But like “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” it’s very far from a waste of time. On the contrary, it’s a beguiling reexamination of a crime-and-punishment tale more than a century old, and the fact that no one, including Howard, will ever know exactly what happened only makes the thing ripple more mysteriously.
What we do know, as Howard relates, is this. In 1884 an apparently benevolent spinster in the English Channel village of Babbacombe was murdered, her throat slit with a mighty thrust, her house set afire. A young man whom she’d befriended, John Lee, was convicted – railroaded, perhaps – of the crime. Lee was sentenced to be hanged from the neck, and hanged he was. Three times. Each time the trap door beneath his feet unaccountably failed to open up, after which, in a rare shrugging of Her Majesty’s judicial shoulders, his sentence was commuted to life in prison, which in practical terms turned out to mean 23 years. “The Man They Could Not Hang!” one newspaper trumpeted, and Howard uses that headline as a subtitle for his show.
Why did the hanging apparatus fail? What really happened on the night of the murder? Who got Lee’s half-sister, the spinster’s cook, pregnant, and did that have anything to do with the murder? Did Lee escape the punishment due him? Or did someone else commit the crime? There may be answers, and Howard leads us onto some fascinating historical byroads, among them a quick history of English capital punishment, in an attempt to find them. But the truth is, with all of the participants in the story long dead, the answers are probably lost forever. And that elusiveness only adds to the story’s intrigue.
“Babbacombe” is a new piece of theater, although it’s not part of Portland’s annual Fertile Ground festival of new works, which officially opens on Thursday, January 24. The tale is the latest chapter in Howard’s “Armchair Adventurer” series for Portland Story Theater, and although it veers from the subject matter of his previous three adventures, all of which were about men measuring themselves against the vast and bitter challenge of the Antarctic, it shares a lot with them in other ways. With an unassuming but self-assured blend of declarative statements and wry humor, Howard tells the story the old-fashioned way, alone and unamplified. He builds his story on a solid base of meticulous research. He personalizes his connection to the story: “Babbacombe,” he tells the crowd, has been a fascination for more than 40 years, since the time during his one term in college when he heard the old English folk-rock group Fairport Convention sing songs from its 1971 concept album “ ‘Babbacombe’ Lee.” And he always remembers the magic of the storytelling circle, stripped of all accoutrements but the voice and the ear: you can almost feel the flames from the metaphorical fire.
One temptation in telling a historical tale like this is to tell too much – to unload your research on the audience, because you’ve done it, and all the little twists and turns remain fascinating to you. “Babbacombe” largely avoids the trap, making sure that whatever detail unfolds is in the service of telling the story. And particularly after intermission, once Howard’s laid all the necessary groundwork, things gallop along at an exciting, almost hectic clip. It helps immeasurably that even while he’s immersed in the mystery, Howard also conveys the sheer comedy of the thing. It’s an outlandish tale, he concedes. But it’s true!
Portland Story Theater has developed a loyal following for its modern spin on the ancient art of storytelling, and Friday’s opening-night audience at the gently bohemian Hipbone Studio was packed: about 70 people in the little makeshift space, with a bar and snacks jammed into one corner and the walls covered with drawings and paintings by the artists who use the studio by day. A crowd that size seems ideal for this sort of intimate theater, which is about as low-tech as you can get: just a story, a teller, and a gathering of people to hear the tale. You can’t hide when you’re performing a show like this, and part of what makes Howard’s stories work so well is his engaging openness in telling them. He’s no matinee idol – just a middle-aged guy with a comfortable stomach and a thicket of silvering beard and a nice jacket to make him look a little dressed up for the occasion, like a shaggy professor submitting to the demands of a dinner engagement with the college president. He speaks easily, clearly, without affectation: straight and true, with dips and rises that echo his own comfortable, invitingly genuine slouch. The truth is in the tale, the tale is in the teller, the teller holds the key. And even when the key unlocks no answers, that’s quite enough.
- “John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee” repeats at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, January 25-26; doors open at 7. Ticket information here.
- Marty Hughley previewed Howard’s show for The Oregonian, here.
- I wrote about Howard’s previous Armchair Adventure, “Shackleton’s Antarctic Nightmare,” a year ago for ArtsWatch. Read it here.