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Mystery Night actors serve entertainment
Evening benefits GSU's Continuing Education programs
W Mystery Interaction
Mystery nights aren't called interactive dinner theater for nothing. Actors (left to right, standing) Evan Floyd, Alea Landers and Chay Vasser interact with audience members (seated) David Thompson, Meg Long and Garth Long. - photo by Al Hackle/special

 Amateur actors serve up some saucy roles for murder mystery nights produced by the Continuing Education Division at Georgia Southern University.
    Take, for example, Charles Howell, who played Hamilton "Big Daddy" Sugarbaker in the recent production of "Next of Kin" at Statesboro's Holiday Inn. Some folks couldn't quite take everything that hard-drinking, opinion slinging Big Daddy dished out, and he wound up being carried out feet-first.
    It was an apparent case of poisoned sour mash, and solving the murder was the challenge for detective teams formed by diners at each table.
    In all, 115 people paid $35 per person or $65 per couple for the entertainment plus a meal of steak broiled to order or shrimp and grits, with salad before and cheesecake after. A wet bar was also available. Proceeds above expenses go to the Continuing Education Foundation to provide scholarships for nontraditional students, said Stephanie Childs, assistant program development specialist for the division.
    As the director, she led rehearsals for two and a half hours every evening for two weeks. On the big night, as show time approached, some actors were answering questions as much in-character as out of it.
    "Actually, the way I play Big Daddy is like the way I am in a really good mood. Everyone's a fair target, and I throw barbs left and right," Howell said.
    Then something about his voice changed. His diction waxed while his pace waned.
    "Truth is, I can slip in and out of character at will," drawled Big Daddy. "I know you're just a reporter here for this small-town newspaper, while I have been interviewed by, well, Peter Jennings for one, but I don't mind sharing my life story."
    In real life an Army civilian employee at Fort Stewart, Howell has also acted in a number of plays at Brooklet United Methodist Church.
    Jen Calhoun, who played Big Daddy's wildly neurotic second wife Savannah Sugarbaker, came in with more acting experience and training than other cast members. An English and drama teacher, Calhoun received her bachelor's degree in English drama from Queens University of Charlotte. She and her husband, Dr. Dan Calhoun, recently arrived in the community for his new job as a GSU professor.
    New to acting, Kay DeLoach, Sociology and Anthropology Department secretary, played Big Daddy's devoted nurse, Bobbie Joe Butler. DeLoach lives near Claxton, and the show also drew audience members from Claxton and other communities outside Bulloch County.
    James Higdon, PhD., an astronomy professor in the GSU Physics Department, transformed himself for the evening into Rhett Sugarbaker, Big Daddy's oldest son and a startlingly unethical businessperson.
    Britany Shuman played Scarlett Sugarbaker, Rhett's social-climbing wife.
    In the previous semester's murder mystery night, Shuman carried a far different role, as a nerd who didn't want to go to the prom, but who then wound up becoming the lead detective. Shuman also performed in a GSU production of the Mozart opera "Cosi fan tutte." Her day job is that of referrals clerk at Optim Orthopedics.
    Evan Floyd, new staff member in Continuing Education, took his first turn as an interactive dinner theater actor with the role of Big Daddy's youngest son, the struggling poet Ashley.
    GSU graduate student Chay Vasser played Ashley's eccentric wife Melanie, an "interpretive dancer." Vasser previously acted in
on-campus productions of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
    Alea Landers, an adjunct professor in the College of Education, became Philly Sugarbaker, Big Daddy's even harder-drinking sister with the criminal past. Although this was her first role in Statesboro, Landers was active in theater during her high school years in Florida. She even acted there in a mystery dinner theater production called "Murder on Gilligan's Island" and said she jumped at the chance to do another.
    Besides the cast members listed in the program, a ninth actor, Stacey Thompson, appeared in the role of Beulah the bartender to read the will. GSU sophomore Katie Smith served as a stage hand as she had with the previous mystery night, and other volunteers helped carry away the fallen Big Daddy.
    A number of companies sell mystery dinner theater scripts, and Childs said she purchases the scripts after trying unsuccessfully to write one herself. The Aug. 20 mystery night was the fourth that Childs and the Continuing Education Division have put on in two years. She said she hopes to continue to stage them at the rate of about one per quarter.
    Statesboro author Donald Thompson signed copies of his mystery novel “Charley’s Cruise” for readers during the mystery night opening reception. The recently released book is the first in his trilogy being published by Whiskey Creek Press.

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