Playwright Robert Winslow breathes new life into a murder mystery that’s nearly 140 years old. Welcome Death, produced by Millbrook’s 4th Line Theatre, takes its title straight out of the headlines of the 1870s. The discovery of the body of Elizabeth Deyell in a farmer’s field near the village of Welcome was big news for local newspapers. The ensuing inquest into Deyell’s murder proved to be even more interesting for Winslow, who bases his play on the historical documents of that event.
Just as the simple headline is loaded with multiple meanings, so too Winslow crafts a play that operates on different levels, serving as a whodunit, a historical fiction, and a social commentary on the Victorian era.
The case of who killed Elizabeth Deyell has never been solved. The Millbrook resident left her home “in the middle of the night, in a snowstorm,” says Winslow. She walked 15 miles (24 km) to Port Hope, where she took out all of the money in her bank account. When her body was discovered three months later, her money nearby, it was evident she had been murdered, shot at close range.
As with many murder mysteries, the play starts with Deyell’s dead body, says Winslow. “Then,” he says, “several scenes track her life over a period of five years.” He says he tried not to write Deyell’s character as a typical victim. “I made her a very loving person, full of life, because there’s something so dark about the story. Hopefully, the audience will want to know what happened to her.”
From a historical perspective, Winslow has taken great pains to get things right. He consulted a retired Toronto coroner. And while researching life in the 1870s, he interviewed professors at Trent University. He even retraced Deyell’s last footsteps. “I did the walk to Port Hope from Millbrook. It takes five to six hours. Being only 4’8” tall, Elizabeth wouldn’t have had a big stride. People were a lot tougher then, they walked a lot. Still, to go out at night, she timed her exit for optimum cover,” he says.
Winslow bases much of the play on the actual notes of the murder inquest, which he found in the court records for the United Counties of Durham and Northumberland at the Trent University Archives.
Some of the statements made by the inquest witnesses not only provided Winslow with the facts of the story, but they moved him as well. “The mother testified about her daughter’s state of mind when she left. She said Elizabeth was like a skeleton, ‘worn down with care,’” he recalls.
But ultimately, while it was clear that Deyell was murdered, the evidence fell short of solving the crime. The inquest determined that she was killed “by person or persons unknown.” In the play, Winslow hopes the audience will come to a more precise conclusion.
“Who knows what really happened, just try to imagine,” suggests the playwright, who is also directing the production, and playing a central character, the coroner Robert Maxwell. “The audience will be treated like the jury, so I will address them.”
The play faces some unique production challenges, including the use of a mock-up of a dead body that is so heavy it takes two people to carry it. “In those days, at an inquest, the body was right there in the room,” explains Winslow.
Moreover, the play is being performed in the 4th Line’s rarely used “meadow stage.” While the audience at the 6 pm start time will be in the shade provided by nearby pine trees, the cast is in the sun all day during rehearsals. Entrances and exits from the stage also had to be carefully choreographed using a series of ring paths. “The paths were cut so they cannot be seen,” he says. “The actors have to walk a quarter mile to get back to the backstage area.”
The bowl-shaped meadow is “acoustically very good,” says Winslow. A piano, violin and cello are in view of the audience, while more atmospheric music is played from backstage, behind the pines.
Music director Justin Hiscox composed most of the music and arranged the rest. He will be at the piano to play period pieces from Tchaikovsky and Brahms, as well as accompany the violin for Irish fiddle medleys. Backstage, however, Hiscox has assembled a choir along with an assortment of eclectic instruments like windchimes and a large Brazilian carnival drum called a Surdo drum.
“Backstage, I’ve opted for a more experimental, soundtrack-type effect, so I’ve stepped squarely out of the period into something very sinister and modern and abstract,” he says. “It sounds very creepy. It creates a dark quality.”
Hiscox says he put his brother Mark in charge of the backstage music and the singers. “He’s sort of the leader of the backstage Creeptone Choir, and they sing, basically, a lot of dissonance. I think people will like being scared.”
The spooky music sets the tone for the play’s exploration of spiritualism, and the Victorian era’s preoccupation with the occult.
“Spiritualism was very popular at the time,” notes Winslow. “People were trying to find a link between this world and the next. Even in the realm of science, they were trying to prove life after death. Many prominent people like Susannah Moodie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and psychologist William James professed spiritualist beliefs.”
Winslow’s character, Coroner Maxwell, is a scientific man, but he is open to “trying everything he can to solve this,” according to the playwright. “There is a ghostly element to the play, a sense of the spirit not at peace due to the violent circumstances of the death. And there’s a sense of her spirit guiding the coroner to solving the crime.”
“It was also a time when women couldn’t own property, and they couldn’t vote,” he says. “I hope there’s a certain educational value about women in society at the time. When you track this woman’s history, pretty much all her movements were controlled by male society. And there were no shelters for women to go to then.”
The young actress who plays Elizabeth, Rachel Brittain, says that playing a person from a different era is interesting, especially in terms of women’s rights. “It’s so different from now, to put yourself in that time of such repression.”
Even more interesting, she says, is playing a character who really existed, in the real place where she lived. “It’s a strange sensation, being out here and being her, and knowing that she’s still a little bit here. I mean, you pass Deyell Line on the way here. It does get you in an emotional place.”
The play promises to explore “the dark night of the soul.” And perhaps it will offer enough clues to solve the murder along the way.
Welcome Death premieres at 6 pm tonight, Wednesday, August 12th at the Winslow Farm, 779 Zion Line, Millbrook. An opening night gala reception follows at the Baxter Creek Golf Club. Performances run Mondays through Saturdays at 6 pm to August 29. The production is not wheelchair accessible. For more information, phone 705-932-4445 or go online at http://www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca.