One of the busiest men on the community theater scene, J.E. Ballantyne Jr. has pretty much done it all: acting, directing, writing original plays like the oft-revived Holocaust epic “Block Five”.
This weekend, Ballantyne will be directing “Murder on Krill Island” in the Youngstown Playhouse’s Moyer Room.
The script, penned by area resident and longtime associate Dick Kepley, is near and dear to Ballantyne’s heart.
In a recent interview, the accomplished multi-hyphenate discussed the genesis of the project, and the differences between directing in an intimate space like the Moyer Room versus some of the larger venues he’s worked in.
Q. “Murder on Krill Island” came together fairly quickly. What’s the background on the show and your involvement in it?
A. Dick Kepley and I have been friends since I moved here from Pittsburgh. In fact, he was one of the first people I met when I did my first Youngstown Playhouse show (“Night Watch) back in 1972. We discovered that we’d both lived in Pittsburgh at the same time, two blocks apart. Over the years we did many shows together, and Dick has always remained one of my closest friends. He retired from acting a few years ago, and decided to start writing. One of the things he wrote was a mystery novel, “Murder at the Pier of the Apocalypse.” That’s where the character of private detective Felix Tripp, the lead character in “Krill Island,” was first introduced. The book sold fairly well, and it inspired him to write a play with Tripp as the main character. After completing a draft, Dick asked me to take a look since I’d written several scripts myself. I liked it, but felt that it needed a little work so we got together and went through it page by page. Once we arrived at a finished draft, we talked about the possibility of having it produced locally. Dick wanted me to direct, so I paid a visit to (YP Executive Director) Mary Ruth Lynn. We discussed the script, and felt that summer would be a great time slot. And with all the shows that Dick has done at the Playhouse over the years, we felt it would be a wonderful tribute to him.
Q. What’s the play about?
A. A group of people are called to Krill Island to claim their inheritance from Dexter Krill, a millionaire who has passed away. Upon arriving, they’re met by Krill’s attorney who explains the details of the will. Before too long a murder is committed, and the fun really begins (laughs). One thing I want to point out is that this is good, clean family entertainment. So no one needs to worry about bringing their children along.
Q. Who’s appearing in the show?
A. We have a great group of actors, some of whom have worked with Dick in the past. The cast includes Holly Ceci, Linda Spencer, Ryan Newell, Josh Fleming, Bob Wilson, Jack Hay, Tom Jones, Paul Dillon, Bill Nibert, Bill Shorr and Barb Malizia. Marilyn Higgins of the Victorian Players is my stage manager.
Q. You seem to have an affinity for classically structured, three-act plays. Is “Krill Island” shorter than the usual J.E. Ballantyne production?
A. The shows I direct have a tendency to run a little on the long side, usually due to the expanse of the subject matter or plot. This play, however, is very short. With performances starting at 7:30 p.m., it should be an early evening for everyone. It’s a two-act piece, but I think we’ll come in at under two hours.
Q. You’re used to working on bigger stages. Did you have any trouble adjusting to the dimensions of the Moyer Room?
A. The Moyer Room is a great little space, and it’s really perfect for this type of play. Not all shows can work on the Moyer stage, but this one definitely will. It’s also been a fantastic learning experience for my actors. Being that close also helps pull the audience into the action even more.