Potent but Predictable Mystery in Strawshop’s “The Bells”

When a handsome French-Canadian bounty hunter shows up in a former Gold Rush town and begins poking around a 20-year-old murder case, questions inevitably arise. As the premise of Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s production of The Bells (written by Theresa Rebeck), the whodunit mystery is thin but serves as an effective vehicle for an investigation of moral relativity.

Set in the endlessly dark, harsh climate of Northern Alaska in the early 1900s, The Bells revolves around the murder of a Chinese prospector (Jose Abaoag) after he struck a fortune in gold. Mathias (Peter Crook), the owner of the town’s tavern, and his daughter Annie (Brenda Joyner) are the first to meet the sophisticated Baptiste (Patrick Allcorn) when he arrives claiming to look for gold. But before long, Baptiste’s true mission is revealed: He’s a bounty hunter in town to solve the murder.

Though a small group of townsfolk steer Baptiste away from digging too deep into the past, the bounty hunter soon uncovers some disturbing truths. Haunted by guilt (and the ghost of his victim), the murderer attempts to cover all tracks and justify every action, but soon those carefully laid plans begin to unravel.

The majority of character interaction takes place at Mathias’ bar—an old-timey Alaskan tavern constructed with rough wooden planks and decorated with a wooden table and chairs, a cast iron stove, and shelves lined with liquor. Scenic designer Montana Tippet filled the rest of the stage with sheet-covered boxes and a few sparse trees, creating a craggy, snow-covered terrain. One side of the bar is open to the snow scene, allowing supernatural characters to drift in and out, hovering like mystery and guilt.

As the ghost of Chinese miner Lin Xuifei, Abaoag remained on stage throughout the play, moving lightly among the snowdrifts, entering and leaving the bar in silence and observing the living with extraordinary stillness. As Annie, Joyner started off awkward, almost too emphatic, but eventually found her footing; her angry and passionate moments were the most believable. As Mathias, Crook manifested the barkeep’s cocksure swagger using small gestures, unsure looks and a powerful voice inflection. 

The play pushes the audience to consider the ethics surrounding the murder. To this end, playwright Rebeck pulls a bait-and-switch on the audience—initially framing the murder as a take-one-life-to-save-another matter until it becomes clear that greed, not survival, motivated the killing. But even when judgment is passed, Mathias’ existential question lingers, “What does it mean to be human in the wilderness?”

In a play with so many visual, physical and metaphorical layers, there isn’t a straightforward answer. What is made clear is the complexity of human nature and the decisions we make; just like fickle weather of the northern Alaskan climate the results can be deadly—it all depends on which way the wind blows.

Photo by John Ulman.