The Letter Kills: Alumni Author, Stage Original Play
August 11, 2023
Over the years, tutor Dr. Richard Ferrier has hosted numerous performances of Shakespeare and other classic plays staged by Thomas Aquinas College, California, students on his amphitheater-shaped patio. On July 29, that tradition continued — but with a twist! This summer’s performance was the debut of The Letter Kills, an original play written by, and starring, alumni John Turrentine (’16) and Benjamin Trull (’19).
The play, says Mr. Trull, is “a tongue-in-cheek whodunit that blends Agatha Christie-style parlor mysteries with Raymond Chandler-esque noir fiction.” Two mystery novelists meet by chance at a remote Pasadena hotel in 1949, where — surrounded by an ensemble cast including an ingenue, a femme fatale, and a Communist — they stumble onto a murder. Given their background, the authors decide to teach the police a thing or two about crime-solving. But life is always messier than fiction, and the would-be detectives soon discover a few more mysteries than they expected — or wanted — to solve.
Mr. Turrentine and Mr. Trull, who played the two novelists in the show and served as its directors, met as TAC students in 2015 and bonded over their shared hobbies of writing and acting, although they never expected to combine those hobbies by co-writing a play. “It started off as a joke,” recalls Mr. Turrentine. “After a successful performance of The Merchant of Venice last year, Ben and I suggested that we could write a play for the following summer.” The cast of last year’s show was thrilled at the idea and took the exuberant authors at their word. “Well, Ben and I need to be careful about what we say,” Mr. Turrentine laughs. “Once we started writing, we couldn't stop!”
The work found legs in improv sessions on Mr. Turrentine’s front porch, where the friends explored characters who had strolled into Mr. Trull’s head on a whim. Improv gave way to more intentional writing, which in turn yielded a first draft only four months after they had made their initial promise. The work, of course, was far from over. “We went through three drafts altogether, revising it based on read-throughs with the cast,” says Mr. Trull. “That was especially fun!” Thanks to the actors’ input and enthusiasm, the script was ready for rehearsals by June — although revisions did not stop until less than a week before the performance.
Everyone’s hard work was amply rewarded on July 29, when more than 100 people in Dr. Ferrier’s garden gave the play a warm reception. “The monologue about falling in love — that was beautiful,” said one audience member. Resonating with another scene, student Peter King (’24) remarked, “I was about moved to tears during one monologue. It was a sucker punch in all the right ways.”
For the playwrights, the audience’s enthusiasm was more than a little surreal. “I was blown away by the reception!” laughs Mr. Turrentine. “The cast did such an incredible job, and things went so smoothly, we really couldn’t have asked for more,” said Mr. Trull. “It was a magical night!”