BWW Review: THE DEATHS OF SYBIL BOLTON at Heller Theatre Company
Like many pieces of Oklahoma's bloody past, the Osage Reign of Terror is too often left out of history lessons. The play The Deaths of Sybil Bolton, currently running at Tulsa's Heller Theatre Company, tells the story of one person affected by the Osage murders and his journey to discover the truth.
The play is based on a book of the same name by Dennis McAuliffe Jr., and it documents his efforts to unearth long-concealed information about the death of his grandmother, Sybil Bolton. The historical context is a sobering reminder of our state's past: in the 1920s and 30s, over 60 members of the Osage Nation were believed to have been murdered by those determined to gain ownership of headrights, or funds distributed from Osage Mineral Estate earnings.
While Dennis was originally told that Sybil had died of kidney failure, his investigation begins when he hears a rumor that she was shot. As he starts to probe deeper, the discoveries he makes lead him down a number of rabbit trails - over the course of the play, he suspects murder by his grandfather, suicide, and finally an even more sinister series of possibilities that link Sybil's death to the Osage murders. The historical background is revealed in a playful, meta-theatrical way, making use of three rotating chalkboards and the ensemble cast as a kind of pedagogical Greek chorus.
The mission of Heller Theatre Company is to present original theatre pieces that "raise awareness and open minds through art" - and this production proves that they are absolutely a company to watch out for in Tulsa's dynamic theatre landscape. The one-act play packs in a great deal of information and character exploration in its short 90 minutes. Denny, played expertly by Steve Barker, begins the play with a tepid curiosity and insecurity regarding his Native heritage. He then descends into word-slurring drunkenness and despair, and he finally emerges with a heartbroken yet clear-eyed view of his family tree and history.
He is supported by a vibrant ensemble cast, led by Paulette Record as Dennis' mom and a company of players who transform into different characters that pop up during the investigation. Some highlights included Quinn Blakely as the proprietor of a funeral parlor, Jenn Thomas as a librarian with a flair for the dramatic, and Courtney Meadows as the elusive Ms. Bolton herself. Some of these characters are more abstract than others: at one point two of the performers embody "pieces of information" that just popped into Dennis' beer-addled mind.
The play ends with a lengthy analogy that compares family history to a mansion with many rooms. While this comparison could seem hackneyed, it resonates deeply after a production that is as understated and playful as this one. As a whole, Blakely's adaptation is educational without being didactic and moving without self-indulgence. It provides a refreshing yet profoundly personal history that all Oklahomans should take to heart.