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Theater review: The Day They Shot John Lennon 

Forty years and a day after the senseless murder outside the Dakota apartments in Manhattan, The Day They Shot John Lennon opened last Thursday at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre for a two-week run in the cozy CAST boxagon. Opening night was even more of a death-a-versary when you realize that James McLure's 1984 drama occurs the day after the shooting, as nine assorted characters gather in Central Park, within sight of Lennon's Westside deathplace at 72nd Street.

So was McLure's contemplation of Lennon's impact — and non-impact — a laudable project or a crassly opportunistic one? The obstacles facing McLure become starkly apparent as we move from the CAST lobby to the Central Park set. Above your friendly bartender floats a yellow submarine, and the rest of the lobby is festooned with evocations of Lennon and Beatles album art. Karina Roberts-Caporino, in her directorial debut, is listed as a lobby co-designer, and she settles us into the story nicely, with the help of some Jay Thomas video, projecting a newsreel montage of the reactions that swept the airwaves on the night Lennon was assassinated, including clips from Nightline and Monday Night Football.

Then we must fade-dissolve to harsh reality: Lennon was a man of words and music, and McLure hasn't been granted the privilege of exploring either of these onstage. A simple "Ob-La-Di" uttered by one of his stage characters could expose McLure to an ob-la-lawsuit. To say that he's forced into an oblique approach is something of an understatement.

Four cells of characters converge on McLure's re-creation of Central Park on the day after. First there is Lennon idolizer Mike, his guitar strumming friend Sally, and her estranged boyfriend Kevin. Next we encounter Fran, a legal secretary, and an ad exec, Brian, whose only connection seems to be that both were at Woodstock back in the summer of '69 — or is that just a line he's using as a come-on?

Morris is a longtime habitué at the park, a curmudgeonly old-timer who needs to be guided past the notion that it was Jack Lemmon who died. This is done by Larry, surly son of the doorman at Morris's apartment, an Afro mess who totes a boosted boom box yet is conversant with Ellison's Invisible Man. Lastly, we have two Vietnam vets, Woodruff Gately and Silvio, who had been seen at an army veterans' hospital in McLure's Pvt. Wars when it played Broadway in 1979. We quickly discover that Silvio's postwar reintegration into the workforce and Gately's reconnection with reality are still stumbling works-in-progress.

Considering that these four cells hardly connect with one another before the hectic denouement, Roberts-Caporino does a fine job in this arena stage setting keeping the actors circulating. She is aided by a very fine CAST cast that is studded with newcomers. If these nine people are a microcosm of the world — or at least the U.S. — Lennon left behind, then these actors make it a very credible one in just over 74 minutes.

Most astonishing of the newcomers is Abigale Corrigan as Sally, a 7th grader at NW School of the Arts, but the smoldering corporate chemistry between Heather Whittington and Ricky Watson as Fran and Brian could hardly be more perfect. All the familiar faces are in top form, Lamar Wilson reprising his military menace as Silvio, Bill McNeff strengthening his alter-kocker creds as Morris, and James Lee Walker II as Larry reaffirming his eminence as Charlotte's go-to hood.

McLure is far too fastidious in tidying things as the crowd disperses — a cop with a bullhorn and a rabid bulldog would only be slightly less convincing. But it's the Christmas season, when Charlotte audiences pardon all contrivances.

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