‘Verbatim’ play about Medicine Hat murders based on real interviews

Exactly 10 years to the day after the crimes were committed, a play about a notorious triple murder in Medicine Hat opens at the Belfry Theatre.

Castle in the Sky investigates the aftermath of the killings of a Medicine Hat couple and their eight-year-old son on April 23, 2006.

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The slayings, which made international headlines, were carried out by the couple’s 12-year-old daughter and her then-boyfriend, 23-year-old Jeremy Steinke.

Each was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder.

The true-crime drama was created by Sidney playwright Francesca Albright and her brother Jude Thaddeus Allen. Early versions were staged — however, this marks Castle in the Sky’s official première. The play is self-produced at the Belfry’s Studio A theatre by Castlereigh Theatre Project, the playwrights’ own company.

The drama, a one-hour piece of verbatim theatre, features dialogue using only exact words culled from 200 hours of taped interviews conducted by Albright and Allen.

A decade ago, the playwrights travelled to Medicine Hat to talk to friends of the murderers, police, teachers, politicians, crime reporters and psychologists.

The murderers were not interviewed — a deliberate choice, Albright said.

“I didn’t want to, to be honest,” Albright said. “The play is kind of like [Thornton Wilder’s] Our Town. It’s about the people who were left behind and how it affected them.”

She first became interested in the case after reading reports while living in Calgary.

“The headlines were sensational and shocking. We were really curious to know what was really going on in the town itself.”

Albright said her decision to write Castle in the Sky was influenced by Laramie Project. That play, another example of verbatim theatre, is based on interviews with people affected by the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, widely viewed as an anti-gay hate-crime.

A friend of the woman convicted of the Medicine Hat crimes will attend the Victoria show. (Set to be released next month, the convicted murderer, known as J.R., was not named by media under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.)

J.R.’s friend, who’s now 21 and living in Vancouver, was one Albright’s interview subjects. In the play, she’s referred to as Cara, a pseudonym. She was a teenager when the playwrights first spoke to her.

“[The murders] affected her badly. She was 14 and had no support from people in her family. Quite the opposite,” Albright said. “She showed us poetry she’s written for her friend and letters she was trying to mail [J.R.] in prison.”

The playwrights also interviewed Jordon Attfield, a witness for the Crown. A former bandmate of Steinke’s, Attfield wrote a song for Castle in the Sky at their request.

Albright said while researching the play, they interviewed a young man who had been initially asked by J.R. to commit the murders. Such information was never forwarded to authorities, Albright said.

“[The murders] could really have been prevented,” she said. “And that’s just awful.”

The earliest incarnation of Castle in the Sky was staged by Victoria’s Intrepid Theatre. Calgary’s IGNITE! Festival also mounted it, followed by a one-night showing in Medicine Hat. In that city, some of those interviewed by the playwrights attended. Afterward, they met the cast at a social gathering.

“They loved it. It was wild. It was quite an amazing experience,” Albright said.

Victoria director Britt Small oversees the new production. Castle in the Sky features six actors playing 20 characters who address the audience directly. Black-and-white images of Medicine Hat are projected on hanging panels.

Albright approached the director a year ago about collaborating on the play.

“I thought it was really interesting,” said Small, an artistic producer with Atomic Vaudeville (Ride the Cyclone).

She and Albright say one of the most memorable real-life characters in Castle in the Sky is James Neeley.

A former reporter for the Medicine Hat News, Neeley — then a fledgling journalist — covered the entire trial. The details that emerged were especially gruesome.

“He was deeply affected by it, as I think anyone would be. He later quit journalism and he joined the army. … It keeps him up at night,” Albright said. “The whole thing is just scary and very unusual.”

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

What: Castle in the Sky

Where: Belfry Theatre (Studio A)

When: Opens 8 p.m. Saturday, continues to April 29

Tickets: $24 at tickets.belfry.bc.ca or 250-385-6815

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