ELMHURST – Most people wouldn’t expect a cozy community like Elmhurst to be the site of heinous crimes, but every year for the last decade, someone is murdered right around this time of year.
The GreenMan Theatre Troupe’s annual mystery dinner theater production is celebrating it’s 10th anniversary this year with a birthday party for Dowager Duchess, Lady Dolores Fussworthy.
“It’s very immediate theater,” said Carolyn Thomas-Davidoff, director and writer of “Doubtful Abbey: Murder and Mayhem at Fussworthy Masion.”
Thomas-Davidoff worked on the lighting for the troupe’s very first mystery dinner, “The Boardwalk Melody Hour Murders,” in 2004 and has been involved ever since.
“When we started we didn’t know if we were going to be able to continue,” said David Soria, the theater’s artistic director.
The first mystery dinner was meant to be a one-time fundraiser to get the new community theater off the ground, but the audience demanded more. The annual production still functions as a fundraise, which Soria said is essential to GreenMan.
Because the annual event is a fundraiser, an original script saves the theater money on royalties, but it’s also exciting for cast members like Ashley Thompson of Roselle.
In her second production with GreenMan, Thompson said her favorite part about the troupe is the closeness of the cast and crew.
“I see these great friendships and relationships being made,” said Soria, who met his wife, Katie, a member of the Doubtful Abbey cast, at a past show.
Part of community theater’s appeal, for many involved, is the amount of behind-the-scenes work that goes into each performance.
“They have to turn their lives upside down to be able to participate in something like this,” Thomas-Davidoff said.
Shazad Mehta works at his family business, Mehta Motors, in Elmhurst, but lives in Chicago. Everyone’s circumstances are different, but each gives many hours to each production.
“I’ve always kind of been the ham of the family,” said Mehta, an Elmhurst native who will be performing in his ninth GreenMan production this season.
Thomas-Davidoff remembers Mehta’s first audition just before she was ready to call it quits after a couple of hours without a standout performance.
“To me the play just took off at that point,” she said of Mehta’s audition.
The casting call makes all the difference said Thomas-Davidoff. The Western Springs teacher spends most of her summer writing or co-writing the murder mysteries, but during her winter break she rewrites the script after meeting the cast.
Once, she even created an entirely new character for an actress who came to a casting call.
As much as she enjoys writing the script, Thomas-Davidoff also likes how the dinner theater setting gives the cast the opportunity to involve the audience. Over the years, some guests have started wearing period costumes to the shows.
Before the show, the cast mingles with the audience during a cocktail hour, and during the performance, characters often make their way between tables and involve audience members in the show.
“You can imagine that there’s some people who just want to watch the play, and then there are other people who are eager to have the cast members approach them,” Thomas-Davidoff said.
Whether audience members want to observe or get into the act, for first-time GreenMan cast member Kitty Mortland of Chicago, the accessibility of community theater is what makes it special.
“We’re all here enjoying an evening of art together,” Mortland said.