A bit of sordid NJ history comes alive in site-specific ‘Thou Shalt Not’ in New Brunswick

thou shalt not review

JORDAN COHEN

Characters react to the crime scene in the play “Thou Shalt Not.”

“Thou Shalt Not: A Site-Specific Play About the Hall-Mills Double Homicide,” running through Oct. 8 at the Church of St. John the Evangelist in New Brunswick, brings a twisted bit of New Jersey history to light in a unique and riveting fashion. The audience stands amid a group of talented actors as they re-enact the events and aftermath of the Hall-Mills murders, a bizarre and still unsolved double-homicide that made the sleepy college town of New Brunswick a national obsession exactly 100 ago.

The story reads like something concocted by one of Agatha Christie’s most baroque acolytes, with facts plucked from the pages of “Weird N.J.” In the fall of 1922, Rev. Edward Hall and his mistress, Eleanor Mills, were found murdered in a field on the New Brunswick-Somerset border, the reverend with a bullet in his head and Eleanor with three bullets in her body. The corpses had been posed on the ground hand in hand, Rev. Hall’s business card was found at his feet, and love letters between the two were scattered on the bodies.

Lazarus Simmons plays the Rev. Edward Hall in “Thou Shalt Not.”

Suspects included Mrs. Frances Hall, the reverend’s haughty wife and an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune; Eleanor’s husband, an underemployed handyman and the church’s sexton; and Mrs. Hall’s brother, who was known to own a gun. There were rumors that the Ku Klux Klan — a powerful force in New Jersey in 1922 — had murdered the couple for their infidelity. And there was an alleged witness, a local farm woman whose coarse, uneducated demeanor led the tabloid press to label her “The Pig Woman.”

But wait, it gets odder still. The police botched the investigation, first over a jurisdictional dispute (cops from New Brunswick, which is in Middlesex County, responded first, but left when they realized the crime had been committed in Somerset County). Rubbernecking locals were allowed to contaminate the crime scene, walking over the bodies, picking up souvenirs and taking photos. A man who had been in the area canoodling with his own mistress was arrested but then quickly released due to lack of evidence.

The church, embarrassed by its pastor’s infidelity, tried to suppress evidence and wouldn’t allow its congregants to discuss the case for decades. Police and prosecutors were hamstrung by incompetence and politics.

After a grand jury failed to indict anyone for the crime, Eleanor Mills’ daughter Charlotte entreated the governor to reopen the case; a special prosecutor impaneled a second grand jury that indicted Mrs. Hall and her brothers for the murders. Their trial became the first true-crime sensation of the century.

The Hall-Mills Murders were splashed across front pages all over the world. Every detail of the case was sensationalized. The story even made it into The Rutgers Daily Targum, where student Oswald George Nelson raised eyebrows by drawing a satiric editorial cartoon of “The Pig Woman.” (Oswald would later go by Ozzie and become America’s favorite dad in “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”)

After waiting in an anteroom, the audience is ushered into the church’s meeting hall, where actors come out and mingle, gossiping about the murders. (“Do you know whodunit?” one of them asked me.) We meet Charlotte Mills (Madhu Murali) in 1941, decades after the murder, ostracized by her community, ridiculed by the press, her personal life upended by the tragedy. Murali plays Charlotte as an emotional basket case, seemingly the only person interested in solving the crimes.

(The real Charlotte never recovered from the murders, or the media circus that followed them. She moved to Manhattan and tried to pursue a career there but died young; her funeral was held at the Church of St. John the Evangelist.)

Kaitlin Ormerod Hutson plays Eleanor Mills in “Thou Shalt Not.”

Slowly, the principals are introduced: The innocent and devout choir singer Eleanor Mills (Kaitlin Ormerod Hutson); the doomed Rev. Hall (Lazarus Simmons); his imperious wife Frances (Aline Stokes); Jane Gibson (Celine Dirkes), the farmer libelously labeled “the Pig Woman”; and Frances Hall’s brother Willie Stevens (Andrew Bambridge), who tragically learns he’s “dim-witted” by hearing himself described that way in court. The audience then moves to the actual church itself, sitting in its pews while the rest of the story unravels.

New Brunswick’s Thinkery & Verse theater company staged the production, drawing from the nearby Mason Gross Conservatory at Rutgers for much of its cast.

In 1922, the vestry (ruling body) of St. John’s only included white men, and the congregation was white and mostly well-to-do as well. Today, the vestry is mostly women, the pastor is from Sierra Leone, and the church’s congregants represent the diversity of New Brunswick. For those reasons, according to J.M. Meyer (Thinkery & Verse’s co-artistic director, the play’s primary playwright and a member of the ensemble), the production uses non-traditional casting.

“The ethnicity of the cast reflects the ethnic diversity of the congregation in 2022 rather than 1922,” Meyer writes. “The church is no longer a haven for the wealthy, but instead a gathering place for the working-class, and expatriates of Sierra Leone. That informs how we cast the play, and how we approach the material. The community never lets us forget how racism, misogyny, class prejudice, and politics created an environment ripe for violence.”

The play and performances on their own make this a memorable experience. But then there is the added element of watching the characters interact in the actual church where Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills met and began their doomed romance. It’s quite unlike any “play” I’ve seen before.

Some traditional dialogue and monologues do transpire, but co-directors Karen Alvarado and J.M. Meyer use an almost commedia dell’arte approach, as the ensemble shouts out interjections, echoes the principals’ lines, and creates an inspired sense of chaos. This approach renders much of the production impressionistic rather than expository, leaving the audience to fit the pieces together.

It’s a wonderful night of theater, occasionally funny but also tragic, moving, and exciting — and a sharp reminder that many of the sins of 1922 are still being committed today.

“Thou Shalt Not” runs Thursdays to Saturdays through Oct. 14. The play was written by J.M. Meyer, Karen Alvarado and Tommi Byrne and co-directed by Alvarado and Meyer. Visit thinkeryandverse.org.

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