John Lennon’s murder on Dec. 8, 1980, inspired an outpouring of grief that was unprecedented. As Time magazine critic Jay Cocks observed, the musician’s murder resonated uniquely, in a way that (even) the killings of politicians John and Robert Kennedy, and spiritual leader Martin Luther King Jr., did not. Lennon “was a creature of poetic political metaphor, and his spiritual consciousness was directed inward,” Cocks wrote. “That was what made the impact, and the difference — the shock of his imagination, the penetrating and pervasive traces of his genius — and it was the loss of all that, in so abrupt and awful a way, that was mourned last week, all over the world.”
Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Paul Simon and others have all written songs about the loss of Lennon. But the musician who wrote “Imagine” — a song released nearly half a century ago whose message seems pitch-perfect for these times — has also inspired a play. “The Day They Shot John Lennon,” by James McClure, was penned three years after Lennon’s death. McClure set it outside the Dakota apartment building where Lennon was shot.
There’ll be staged readings of “The Day” Friday through Sunday at the Old Firehouse Venue in Ridgway, the final performance of the season by the Sherbino Theater Company and artistic director Kathleen O’Mara.
“We did another staged reading, the comedy ‘The Queen of Bingo,’ which was really well-received,” the Sherbino’s programs director Trisha Oakland said. “This is more serious and more emotional.” It’s also more involved: Nine actors comprise the cast this weekend, portraying a young ad executive, “a women’s libber, a group of Vietnam vets, an elderly Jewish man from a neighboring building” and others who arrive at the Dakota deliberately — to commemorate Lennon’s passing — or are simply passing by and express themselves in “sometimes humorous, sometimes moving, sometimes menacing” ways. (In other words, pretty much the way regular New Yorkers do.)
“The great thing about this play is how it brings all walks of life together” in a difficult time, Oakland said. There are parallels between the emotional life of the play and the present moment, she added: “(Supreme Court Justice) Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s loss is heartbreaking, but we’re seeing some motivation to follow in her footsteps. I think the loss of John Lennon had that effect, too. It touched people, and opened minds.” The play has had that effect on its actors, she added: “It’s clear that they are all very emotionally attached to this production.”
The play is one of the final performances of the season in the backyard of the Old Firehouse. Next weekend brings a youth theater performance of “Charlie Brown and Friends” starring a group of elementary students — “It should be a darling show,” Oakland said — and the following week middle-school students will perform a murder mystery there entitled “When the Clock Strikes One.”
The venue, former home and exhibit space of the late sculptor Michael McCullough (whose antique firetruck is still parked outside), is owned by Ridgway denizens Pat and Marti O’Leary. “Pat let Michael’s daughter (who inherited the property) know he’d be very interested in buying it, and would do his best to maintain the integrity of it,” Oakland said. “He fixed up the firetruck, and gave the theater kids a ride around town at the beginning of the season. It’s been such a gift” that the O’Learys have allowed theater performances to take place in the backyard.
The arrival of autumn, and cooler nights, means that “’Lennon’ will be our last evening performance there,” Oakland added. “We have no capacity to add heating, and lighting is more difficult in that venue.” So the kids’ performances will take place during warm, sunny afternoons — the time of day Oakland hopes to keep staging performances at the 610 Courtyard, a few doors down. “We have heaters at 610, and we’ll definitely keep on going until October. We’ll try to stay open until November. We just have to see what the weather does,” she said. “We hope to keep offering weekend music, as long as the sun is out.”
For reservations to “The Day They Shot John Lennon,” visit sherbino.org.