When two Vermont teens murdered Dartmouth professors Half and Susanne Zantop in 2001, the brutality and senselessness of the crime sent shockwaves through the region. The news cycle eventually quieted with the killers' capture and conviction. Seven years later, why would Burlington playwright Maura Campbell revive painful memories with a play?
Her new work, Dreamtime, fictionalizes the true story but does not focus on the crime itself. The play instead delves into what news accounts and court documents failed to unravel: the interior journeys of the four principals, and their relationships with each other. The result is neither sensationalistic nor exploitative. Campbell creates a quartet of lead characters with rich inner lives. The professors' dreams and reality intertwine in the charming two-person world of their deeply bonded marriage. The boys, however, choose tragic means to pursue their otherwise prosaic adolescent desire to travel and escape.
Campbell is originally from Randolph, not far from the teens' hometown of Chelsea. "Because I knew the boys slightly - one of their fathers had worked for me - I felt like it happened to me," she recalls. "As thin as the strand might be, when something like this happens, we all experience it.
"When this occurred with these boys in Chelsea, I just hopscotched in my mind to Columbine," Campbell continues. "And I began thinking about how much fantasy plays into our world, not just with incomprehensible events like murders, but also in our daily lives - how much we all fantasize and live in this reality that's rooted to almost nothing." Campbell was visiting Colorado when the Columbine tragedy took place. The shootings seemed surreal against the backdrop of the Rockies, which felt "so much bigger, so much more real and primal," she remembers.
As Campbell researched the Dartmouth story, the power and permanence of landscape emerged as a counterpoint to ephemeral human lives. Australia became terra firma for Dreamtime: mythic, vast, exotic. The boys plan to escape there; its unusual rock formations fascinate the geologist.
The action unfolds on parallel tracks that eventually intersect. Professors Jorg and Greta Adler have a playfully mundane January day at their New Hampshire home, preparing for a dinner party. Meanwhile, Noah and Willy take two frantic months devising their plot to rob, and possibly kill, for enough money to flee small-town Vermont. In the script, the four cross paths twice: the day of the murder and later in a surreal dream space.
This Sunday's staged reading at Champlain College is Dreamtime's first public presentation. (A fully staged production debuts this May at the Norfolk Southern Festival of New Works in Roanoke, Virginia.) Private readings at Campbell's home have helped her refine the script. "Every time I hear it read, I rewrite it," she remarks. "Playwriting is a form of poetry, and listening helps me to condense language."
Both Clarke Jordan, who plays Professor Jorg Adler, and Colin Cramer, as Noah Stone, are working with Campbell for the first time. For Burlington's Cramer, undertaking a character based on a real person is also a first. "It gives me the chills a little bit," he admits. Cultivating sympathy for a killer is another challenge. "Noah still holds on to a bit of innocence," Cramer reflects. "There's almost a lost-lamb feel to him, and I think everyone can relate to that."
East Montpelier's Jordan finds his character a refreshingly comfortable fit. "I don't encounter that many roles that involve middle-aged men that aren't cutpurses or clowns or insane police inspectors," the veteran actor says with a laugh. "On a very basic level, I'm a middle-aged, slightly professorial guy, living at the end of a road in a rural part of New England, in a long-standing marriage that's very loving and very intellectually and spiritually satisfying."
Beyond the striking points of biographical similarity, Jordan is "moved by the obvious vulnerability of the character, which speaks to maybe all of our vulnerability in violent times." He finds great appeal in the portrayal of the Adlers' "paradisiacal" marriage, and how the script avoids seeing death in clichéd terms of tragedy. "The play is so oddly located in this dreamtime, in which the past, the present and fantasy coexist, as I guess they do in our brains and hearts, that in some ways nothing is lost."
"That's a heartening kind of message," Jordan asserts. "Despite the horrors that abound, and despite the fact of mortality, that maybe there are things - goodnesses - in the world that persist."
Dreamtime, written and directed by Maura Campbell. Champlain College Alumni Auditorium, Burlington. Sunday, March 2, at 7 p.m. Free. Info, 578-4857.