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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

REVIEW: Truth and Lies in the Story of Jack the Ripper

"Factory for Murderers," a new play by Scott McCrea at Alleyway Theatre


Joseph Lawende and Jack Donovan, played by Trevor Dugan and James Cichocki


A busy theater schedule, complicated by flu season, delayed my getting to Factory for Murderers, an intriguing new play by Scott McCrea. Even at the end of its run, however, the piece is worthy of comment. McCrea's play explores the lives of people living in the Whitechapel section of east London at the time of Jack the Ripper.

The year is 1888, and a savage serial killer is targeting prostitutes. Anti Jewish sentiment and an ungrammatical graffito near a bloody bit of evidence convince many that the anonymous ripper, who has never been identified, is Jewish. The entire Whitechapel district is fearful. People are suspicious of each other.

McCrea takes this background to explore the lives of one of the so-called “canonical” ripper victims, her husband and friends, and of Joseph Lawende, the one witness believed to have gotten a good look the murderer – maybe. The title of the play, which has undergone change, and some dialogue heavy with sociological theorizing suggests that the playwright’s thinking about his characters might be evolving.

What fascinated me about Factory for Murderers was certainly not the possibility that poverty made Whitechapel a veritable factory for murderers, or even the interesting research into the true historical facts. I was more interested in the timeless theme of stories being distorted or even erased because people lie. In this play, each character has a different motive, but at some point, everyone lies. Everyone has something to hide.

Kate lies to her “husband” because he doesn’t approve of her making money through prostitution. Her friend Molly lies to cover for her. Lawende lies to his wife to keep her from getting upset, and then again for other reasons. Mrs. Lawende advises her husband to lie to the police. The police make up lies to solve their case or to simplify their lives.

It would be fun to go through the script and count each lie. They tumble out in rapid abundance, and often the characters’ observations about truth gain heightened import in this context of deception.

Directed by Neal Radice and designed by Todd Warfield, the production makes fluid use of the flexible Alleyway space in a way we have not seen for a long time. Gone is the proscenium setup and we are placed in an environment. Devices of Victorian melodrama punctuate our experience – the inevitable screams in the night, for instance. (Some speculate that the Ripper victims never screamed at all, as the attacks began with a swift cut, from left to right, probably from behind, across their throats and windpipes).

Emily Yancey as Kate; Sandra Roberts as Molly; and Emily Lotocki as Alice -- three impoverished women trying to get by in seedy Whitechapel, are especially good. Lotocki, in particular, provides a little slice (forgive the metaphor) of the reality of life in Victorian East London. Yancey and Roberts have more playful character roles, amplified by the tragedy they face.

While Jack Donovan, the husband of ripper victim Kate, played with earnest clarity by James Chichoki, seems, on the surface, to be the central character in the play, he turns out to be mere collateral damage in the machinations of the plot. Chichoki is very good, giving an affecting performance in a role that requires an impressive range. Donovan, in effect, lures the play’s central figure out of the shadows and into the light. That character is Joseph Lawende, played by Trevor Dugan.

Providing equal balance to Chichoki's Donovan, Dugan is excellent as Lawende. This is a man whose deep sense of morality prevents him from ever lying, except, of course, to his wife, or when his deep sense of justice challenges this moral compunction. His inner conflict is the most powerful element of McCrea’s script, and its central thread. In this regard, the play focuses on a formidable and timeless theme worthy of Ibsen. Dugan encounters and considers these ethical shifts as he finds himself swept into the narrative.

When viewing the play as a squaring off between Donovan and Lawende, all other characters seem to serve the connection between them. Madeline E. Allard fuels this effort as Lawende’s disapproving wife. Bob Bozek plays Watkins, a racist inspector whose primary concern is, ironically, seldom the truth. Nolan Miles makes clear distinctions between a variety of characters.

Amy Rochford is absolutely alienating as the “Roaming Prostitute.” In my experience, streetwalkers strive to be inviting, but this one walks the earth like the phantom of murdered prostitutes of long ago.

I have been deliberately ambiguous in my assessment of the additional characters. One of them holds the key to the mystery of the plot, and it would ruin a very fun twist if I reveal that.

While McCrea makes lavish use of the known details of the ripper murders in his absorbing script, the most tantalizing details are those that are unknown. Foremost among these: who was Jack the Ripper? This is the starting point and ending point of the play.

Factory for Murderers, the true story of Jack the Ripper, continues for just one more performance.


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