Cook’s troubled history steps onto Fringe stage – Showcase

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The story of Robert Raymond Cook

Adam Jackson / Black Press staff

More than 50 years after the fact, the memories — and opinions — remain.

The story is that of convicted killer Robert Raymond Cook, the last person to be hanged in Alberta.

In 1960, Cook was found guilty of murdering his father, stepmother and their five children in their Stettler home, just days after being released from prison.

The controversy associated with Cook is that many people — including Cook himself — insisted that he did not commit the crime.

After an 18-month trial, Cook was sentenced to death by hanging and executed Nov. 15, 1960.

His crime, arrest and execution took place in central Alberta, including in Bashaw, where he was found and arrested for the crime, and Ponoka, where he escaped from Ponoka Mental Hospital while awaiting psychological screening.

Lori Miller, a teacher at St. Augustine School in Ponoka, brings the story back to life on the stage.

Miller is directing, End of the Rope, a play recounting Cook’s trials and tribulations from the time that he was arrested to his death at the age of 22.

The stage performance features two Bashaw-area actors; Robert McDonald plays Cook’s lawyer, David P. McNaughton, and Derek Simmers plays Cook.

“I think having just the two of us in the whole performance makes it a lot easier,” McDonald said.

“We’ve become pretty comfortable with each other.”

The two are performing the drama at the 30th annual Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. They had an opportunity to perform a one-minute segment of the performance as a part of a media launch last week at the TransAlta Arts Barns in Old Strathcona.

“It definitely helped us a lot to get everything smoothed out — we’re pretty comfortable with the play right now,” McDonald said.

The Fringe Festival isn’t the first time they have performed together, though. The duo performed the same show in Bashaw last summer.

“The crowd feedback in Bashaw was incredible,” Simmers said. “Obviously, you have a lot of different opinions on whether or not he did it, and some people I talked to even knew the family.”

For Simmers, it almost didn’t happen. After working with him in the past, Miller knew he would be perfect for the role of Cook. “I could see that he could do it,” she said. “I just had to convince him that he could.”

“She really has the unique ability to bring out parts of you that you didn’t know existed,” McDonald said in agreement.

After a whole lot of convincing, Miller finally got through to Simmers.

“I didn’t think that I would be good for the ‘badass’ role, but I really enjoy it now,” Simmers said. “It’s definitely different.”

After finally accepting their roles, the work really began for both McDonald and Simmers.

“Living in Bashaw, it’s kind of hard not to do research on the case,” McDonald said. “It’s definitely a huge historical event that involves Bashaw — it almost turned into an addiction.”

“I talked to a few people who knew him and got an idea what he was like. He’s a bit manipulative, I guess, but he seemed like a genuinely nice guy as well,” Simmers said. “But that’s part of the story. There are the two polarized sides.”

That polarization is something playwright Aaron Coates is trying to keep within the story, Miller said.

“He writes it and develops the plot in such a way that you get into it because through the entire play, you don’t know whether or not he did it.”

When first performed in Bashaw, Miller noticed people from all over central Alberta flocked to the Majestic Theatre because of the play’s controversial material.

“Some people thought he did it, some people thought he didn’t, and some people just didn’t know,” Miller said. “Because they have a memory of their emotions of what happened, they were really into it. A lot of people remember where they were when he was captured and when he was executed.”

The duo performs tonight, Friday and Sunday at the Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre in Edmonton. Tickets for the show are available at www.fringetheatreadventures.ca.

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