More than 60 members of the Osage Nation are believed to have been murdered during the 1920s and '30s in the course of what has come to be known as the “Osage Reign of Terror.”
Among the victims was a 21-year-old woman named Sybil Bolton, whose brief life and mysterious death were almost completely erased from history.
That is, until her grandson Dennis McAuliffe began investigating what happened to a grandmother he never knew and discovered a snarl of corruption, mendacity and malevolence that grew only more complicated and opaque with each fact uncovered.
McAuliffe told this story in his book “The Deaths of Sybil Bolton,” which Tulsa playwright David Blakely has adapted into a play of the same name, which is being presented by Heller Theatre Company.
“The Deaths of Sybil Bolton” is an expansion of an early work, “Four Ways to Die,” which won a Tulsa Award for Theater Excellence in 2018. We weren’t able to see the first version, but the current play, which is being performed at the Lynn Riggs Theater of the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center, is definitely a winner.
Blakely has taken a complex, multilayered book and turned it in a 90-minute drama that combines Osage tribal lore with one family’s complicated history to create a real-life murder mystery leavened with a good deal of surprising, yet welcome, humor.
Denny (Steve Barker) is an investigative reporter who was told from an early age that his grandfather’s first wife had died of kidney failure. And he believes that — until an elderly and talkative barber tells him that if Sybil Bolton truly had died of kidney failure, it was only because she had been shot in the kidney.
As Denny begins to look into the scant record of his grandmother’s life and death, he discovers that her death was officially listed as suicide. But other items of information point to something more sinister, and Denny comes to think that perhaps his grandfather is a murderer.
While Denny tries to determine the true fate of Sybil Bolton, he is also dealing with his own identity as an Osage — a heritage that he has denied for many years — and the toll his search for the truth has on himself and his family.
Blakely, who also directs the production, has packed a great deal into this play, but the story in all its complexity unfolds with remarkable clarity. A number of meta-theatrical elements make the presentation of potentially dry material — such as the intricacies of Osage “headrights” (by which tribal members profited from the rich oil deposits on their land in Oklahoma) and inheritance — both understandable and entertaining.
Barker does a fine job in what is almost a passive role; Denny is more of an instigator than an investigator, and increasingly overwhelmed at the ways what he thought as his family history is continuously upended.
He is supported by a fine ensemble, led by Paulette Record as Denny’s mother, Timothy Hunter as his no-nonsense father, and Quinn Blakely, Andy Axewell, Courtney Meadows, Jenn Thomas and Richard Luttrell in multiple roles.
The deserved success of David Grann’s book, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” has helped return the Osage Reign of Terror to the public’s attention, and does an excellent job of laying out the full scope of the evil that was done to the Osage Nation.
But “The Deaths of Sybil Bolton” tells a more personal story, focusing on a single victim, and the repercussions of her death upon her family, in a way that makes this terrible part of Oklahoma’s past seem even more tragic.
“The Deaths of Sybil Bolton” continues with performances through Nov. 10 at the Lynn Riggs Theatre, 621 E. Fourth St. For tickets and more information: hellertheatreco.com.