Growing up in Aroostook County, Griff Braley learned the legend of Jim Cullen through the storytelling tradition. Every local kid did.
Braley, artistic director of Heartwood Theater Company, heard the story first from his grandmother, and it stayed in his imagination from the tender age of 6.
This week, Braley’s theater company brings the story to life in the form a new play, “The Legend of Jim Cullen.” Heartwood opens the play Friday at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle, and it runs through Aug. 3.
It was spring 1873 when Jim Cullen lost his life to an angry mob in Mapleton in northern Maine. A murderer and robber, Cullen was snatched by townsfolk and hung from a tree.
It’s a true story, and one often told locally. Braley used the memory of his grandmother’s narrative as well as research by author Dena Winslow to create a play that stretches over two acts and includes songs.
He wrote his original version as a one-act in 2006, but never felt satisfied with that effort because he had to cut so much of the story to make it fit the constraints of a short play. He kept working on it, and recently expanded it to two acts with music.
“The story is familiar to a lot of kids, but it takes on a legendary status with the retelling over the years,” he said. “But I knew it was a true story, and I thought it would make a great play.”
His play is historically accurate, based more on Winslow’s research than his grandmother’s tale. The music is a new addition.
“I just started to hear music, and I started to write music for it,” he said. “I hadn’t thought of writing a musical. I actually think of it more as a play with music, but there are 18 songs and all the music is played by the actors.”
The music propels the story, with traditional Canadian and Eastern folk songs, modern folk, a cappella, an Irish jig, choral pieces and other styles. Instruments include electric instruments, a harmonium, acoustic guitars, banjo, cajon and found objects.
The story is told with a full set, lights and projections, creating an atmosphere that suggests the late 1800s in rural Maine. Dance artist Karen Montanaro worked with Heartwood to help the actors and musicians develop movements to help propel the story.
This is Heartwood’s 10th season of shows, and the “Legend of Jim Cullen” represents its most ambitious effort to date. Braley said his many years of experience in the Lincoln Academy theater, as well as a wide circle of collaborators with whom he has worked over the years, enabled Heartwood to tackle a project as ambitious as this.
It’s hard enough writing and mounting an original show. Add elements of music, movement and multimedia, and it becomes something much more complicated.
“We feel very good about what we’re doing,” Braley said. “This show represents the mission and spirit of Heartwood.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: