Caril Fugate and her boyfriend, Charles Starkweather, stand in an abandoned outdoor center near Holdrege Street, bickering under patches of dim light and speaking in hushed tones. Fugate’s family is dead, and they’re to blame.
Now they’re going on the run.
Just as the dialogue intensifies, actor Brandon Morin breaks character to ask for clarification about one of his lines. The scene starts from the top, and Morin becomes Starkweather again. His intonation suddenly twists into a twang as he begins to recite his lines. He stutters and adopts the murderer’s bowlegged stance. His face is painted with a murderous scowl.
Morin plays the titular main character in the upcoming play “Starkweather,” which will run at the Joyo Theatre March 12-22. “Starkweather” was written by Doug Marr and directed by Molly Anderson and gives spectators a further look into the mind of the grizzly murderer who terrified Lincoln from December 1957 to January 1958.
Over 60 years ago, 19-year-old Starkweather killed 11 victims from Lincoln to Wyoming with his 14-year-old girlfriend Fugate by his side, creating a media frenzy that rippled across the nation. During Starkweather’s killing spree, Lincoln natives and residents of surrounding areas locked their doors and kept watch for a fiery young man with a deadly appetite.
For Morin, mimicking Nebraska’s most notorious murderer is an assignment he said required further investigation.
“Before I tried out I had to do a little bit of research to try and figure out some of Charles’ mannerisms,” Morin said. “His voice … was not what I expected. It’s very high-pitched. It’s kind of nasally. It’s definitely a balancing act, trying to get the way he spoke, the way he walked, his facial expressions.”
The script is based on Starkweather’s journals, which contain details of his violent debacle and subsequent trial that dominated national headlines. “Starkweather” begins with the killer teen in jail after his spree and follows him as he retells his story, avoiding depictions of the murders but still containing scenes where Starkweather discusses his violent past.
Though Morin has to imagine what it would’ve been like to meet the rebellious teen with James Dean-like swagger, the memories are real to some Lincoln natives.
Actress Heidi Burklund, who plays Fugate’s grandmother, said she became interested in the Starkweather case long before she was cast in the show. Burklund lives just a few blocks away from where Starkweather killed two of his victims, she said. Starkweather would have been the garbage man for Burklund’s neighborhood had she lived there during the time of his killing frenzy.
Burklund remembers her mother telling chilling stories about life in Lincoln during Starkweather’s rampage. The fear of dying at the hands of Starkweather was a palpable one, Burklund said, especially for Burklund’s father.
“Mom told me how terrified she was because Charles Starkweather was on this rampage and nobody knew where he was going to hit next,” Burklund said. “He’d already killed one gas station guy and [my dad] was working at a gas station, so she was terrified.”
Not only were her family members worried about Starkweather’s attacks, Burklund said, but the entire nation was watching on pins and needles. The play acknowledges this fact, showing the expanse of media coverage and the effect journalists had on the case, especially during a time when televisions were becoming commonplace in the American living room.
“It’s not just Lincoln history, it’s national history,” Burklund said. “It was really shocking at the time.”
Even today, stage manager Michael Lecher said the Starkweather murders continue to have an impact on Lincoln residents. Victims’ family members still grieve loved ones and those who bear the Fugate and Starkweather names try to leave behind their family’s dark past, Lecher said.
“The [Starkweather] family has been through a whole hell of a lot,” Lecher said. “The messages I get from family members or friends of family members say their great-grandchildren have been drug through the mud or bullied in elementary school or moved away because they didn’t want that stigma here in Lincoln.”
And, as part of the “Starkweather” production, Lecher said he’s been the subject of some scrutiny and criticism from the public, even from a few friends and family members of Starkweather and Fugate.
“The younger generation … doesn’t know certain details … which I’m sure certain family members would just love to have disappear,” Lecher said. “The theater’s gotten a few angry phone calls. I’ve gotten a few angry posts.”
Although, Lecher added, the purpose of the play is not to sensationalize the graphic particulars of a town’s ugly past, but to retell an important historical event as well as capture the media’s reaction. For better or worse, Starkweather’s rampage is part of Lincoln’s history.
“It’s literally a show about Lincoln,” Lecher said. “Most of the characters we’re playing were Lincolnites. Charlie was born and raised here, Caril was born and raised here. A lot of folks that we portray are true Lincolnites, so that’s why I liked it. It’s a story of our town.”