By Will Broaddus
---- — History Alive creates plays based on real events, and for 21 years, it has stuck to the script.
The program, which is affiliated with Gordon College, is best known for “Cry Innocent,” a portrayal of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 that runs from June through early November at Old Town Hall.
But in the new play, “Goodnight, Captain White,” which is directed by Jill Rogati of Essex and opens at the Griffen Theatre this week, History Alive has taken a few liberties with the facts.
“History Alive has been, over the years, committed to historically accurate pieces,” said Mark Stevick, who wrote the script for “Captain White” and whose wife, Kristina, is History Alive’s artistic director. “This piece is certainly based on history, but it’s not the kind of history ‘Cry Innocent’ is.”
The captain in the play’s title was Joseph White of Salem, a wealthy, childless merchant who was murdered in his bed in 1830.
He was bludgeoned and stabbed by a local man, Richard Crowninshield, who was hired by the husband of the captain’s grandniece, who stood to inherit White’s fortune.
The crime horrified Salem’s citizens, and the ensuing trial was a national sensation, with renowned attorney and statesman Daniel Webster serving as prosecutor.
But the story and trial are complex, involving a number of characters, subplots and legal issues that would tax the attention of an audience.
So, Stevick combined characters in his script and borrowed a fact from elsewhere in the story to give Webster a reason to be there when the murder happens, so he can leap into action.
One of the biggest liberties Stevick took was to give the story a sense of humor, which comes more from the nature of the characters than the sequence of events.
“This script is a comedy and a whodunit,” he said. “We see the characters who have motive and opportunity at a party at the Gardner Pingree House. Then in Act 2, they can contrast the suspects’ statements.”
This two-act structure is typical of dinner theater, where mysteries are presented that an audience then tries to solve.
That was how “Captain White” was staged in 1999 at the Lyceum Bar and Grill in Salem, then at Giordano’s Dinner Theater in Georgetown, where it ran for five months.
Lyceum was a fitting venue, Stevick said, because it inhabits the same space as the original Salem Lyceum.
That meeting place, which served as a forum for public discussion and scholarly lectures, was built in response to Joseph White’s murder.
“There was such a climate of fear — people were buying weapons — the selectmen decided to create the Lyceum to counter that fear,” Stevick said.
Although those citizens at the time were deeply affected by White’s murder, the story has never received the same level of attention as the Witch Trials.
Stevick thinks this has been in part out of deference to descendants of the families that were involved, which included at least one wealthy local benefactor.
Indeed, he only heard about the murder during a private tour of Peabody Essex Institute in the 1980s.
“They felt free to tell us the story of the Captain White murder; it’s something that was kept from official tours,” he said.
Years later, when he started researching the story, he learned more from an employee of the Institute, Nick Hammond of Beverly, who eventually revealed to Stevick that he was a descendant of the Crowninshield family.
“He didn’t tell me until the third time we met,” Stevick said. “He told me about a small display in the back of the carriage house, behind the Gardner-Pingree House,” which was originally Captain White’s mansion.
Stevick sought approval for his script from descendants of the families involved in the murder, before staging it at the Lyceum for the first time in 1997.
He also performed a version at a private party for descendants of the Whites, Crowninshields and other families that was held in 2004 at the Phillips Library at Peabody Essex Museum.
He had been looking for a new venue for the play when Erik Rodenhiser, manager of the Griffen Theatre, told him there would be an opening in their schedule this month.
Stevick is hoping other venues will want to stage “Goodnight, Captain White” after this run is over and that this play will have as long a life as “Cry Innocent.”
“The ‘Cry Innocent’ actors have learned a lot about interactive theater and needed the next challenge,” he said.
If you go What: Goodnight, Captain White When: Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m., July 26 to Aug. 3 Where: The Griffen Theatre, 7 Lynde St., Salem Information: Tickets $23 general admission, $20 seniors, which includes bonbons and champagne, at goodnightcaptainwhite.brownpapertickets.com.