History comes alive on an annual basis in Northfield at the Defeat of Jesse James Days festival. This year, the Northfield Arts Guild resurrected a lesser-known part of the James gang saga: a local theatre production.
The Guild’s world premier of “The Great Northfield Bank Robbery: A Love Story,” tells the tragic tale of Jim Younger, one of two Younger brothers arrested for the robbery. Headstrong journalist Alix Muller, played by Northfield local Alison Haider, visits the Younger brothers in jail while investigating the calls for their pardon. Naturally, an unlikely, star-crossed romance develops between her and Younger, played by Steve Lawler.
The production, directed by Rachel Haider, had all of the cheesiness and rough edges one expects out of community theater (it opened with a slideshow of fuzzy photos from the raid, complete with voiceover and gunshot sound effects), but it was nonetheless charming, touching and surprisingly insightful.
Lawler set the tone for the cast. He managed to convey the genuine warmth and wisdom needed to transform a middle-aged convict into a believable love interest with impressive subtly and ease. Haider was somewhat less convincing, but the spirit and energy she brought to the character was an effective contrast with Lawler’s reserved portrayal of Younger. The rest of the cast admirably juggled several different roles, including St. Olaf’s own Sean Meagher ’21. The intergenerational cast added to the sense that the show is as much an ode to Northfield history as it is a love story.
The simple set consisted of movable benches and tables that were used to create various scenes downstage, as well as a jail cell upstage. This division was put to good use through lighting during a series of vignettes in Act I. The lighting depicted Younger and Muller falling in love with the memory of each other while simultaneously confined to their separate lives. The backdrop of cell bars was an effective visual reminder of the enduring effect jail had on Younger and the detrimental effect his sentence had on their relationship.
Former Star Tribune journalists Bill McAuliffe and Graydon Royce wrote the play after McAuliffe stumbled upon the story in the files of the Minnesota History Center.
The script was so well-researched that the dialogue occasionally became bogged down in biographical details, but the truth of the story and the passion for history reinforced the impact of the narrative. The playwrights did a good job balancing factual elements with scenes that pulled the audience towards bigger questions about the nature of love. The theme that love has the power to transcend class, situation and common sense was apparent. However, this play also seemed to say that sometimes even deep, mutual love is not enough when the media, societal pressure and government red-tape are all stacked against you. This play definitely took Jesse James Days in a more serious direction than carnival rides and horse races. “The Great Northfield Bank Robbery: A Love Story” was an endearing production that made me proud to be a part of a town in touch with its history, the arts and the joys and aches of the human heart.