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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
November 2009
William Williams Effect

Delving into magazines and newspapers to locate events from our historic past for dramatic purposes is one method of giving audiences fine new theatrical experiences. At this summer’s Minnesota Fringe Festival, The Balance Theatre Project produced Brian Columbus and Nancy Ruyle, “The William Williams Effect,” a stunning docudrama about the last execution in Ramsey County, Minnesota.

The story recreates the events that led to the trial and execution of Williams, an English drifter and day laborer who murdered Mary Keller, his landlady and her 16-year-old son, Johnnie, with whom it’s implied he had a sexual relationship. Passionate letters survive which define their relationship.

Drawn largely from St. Paul newspaper accounts of the time, Williams and Keller were hospitalized for diphtheria, and the two went to work together in Canada. Like most mothers, while Mary Keller stood silently by, Johnnie’s father, John, loudly disapproved of their relationship and threatened to move his son to a reform school. Finally, after several sleepless nights and a drinking binge, Williams committed his crime, defined by his lawyer as an act of “emotional insanity.” The murder was labeled a “crime of passion.”

Balance Theatre Project’s production, directed by its authors, is a stunning, enveloping experience. The script is solid and the performances by Edwin Strout, Wade A. Vaughn, Jean Salo, Kevin Singer, Jerome R. Mazullo, Shannon Troy Jones and Dan Hopman keeps the audience enraptured. By far, the most tense moments are at the climax. It took Williams close to a quarter hour to die from hanging, and evidently, following Williams’ execution, local newspapers were put on trial for their graphic reportage of the events, having violated the Smith Law.

The drama behind the newspaper trial should influence Columbus and Ruyle to expand their script, but as it is, “The William Williams Project” is a stellar contribution to gay theater.


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