Death on the Supermarket Shelf (Centerstage Theatre)

Posted on March 18, 2016


Centerstage's "Death on the Supermarket Shelf".

(t-b) Melanie Hampton (as mother, Lynn Reiner) and Cora Pearlstein (as Michelle Reiner)
Photo Credit: Michelle Smith-Lewis

Centerstage Theatre in Federal Way kicks of March with the intriguing premiere of “Death on the Supermarket Shelf” (DotSMS), a play written by Centerstage Theatre’s managing artistic director Alan Bryce, detailing the events of the 1982 Tylenol scandal. Directed by University of Washington graduate Tina Polzin, Centerstage Theatre pulls together a stellar cast to guide audiences through the myriad of events leading up to the poisoning and the ramifications which continue through today. The result is a compelling, evocative real-life who-done-it drama which also functions as a fitting tribute to the lives that were affected by the events.

If you were alive in the early 1980’s, you are no doubt familiar with the Tylenol tampering deaths. What we learn in this poignant and visceral production is that most of us have little awareness of the many disturbing details which occurred behind the scenes. It is a case worthy of Mulder and Scully of X-Files fame, complete with a cast of eccentric characters, some complicit in their knowledge, others mere victims or scapegoats manipulated by a corporation and its allies in the media, FBI and law enforcement. What transpires in their short sighted pursuit of protecting a company, frequently at the expense of the public and the victims, is shocking.

Death on the Supermarket Shelf (DotSMS) may not entertain us in the traditional sense by transporting us to some land of make believe, for it is firmly rooted in the reality of this world. A world we are becoming all too familiar with these days, where corporations spend more time, energy and money on protecting themselves from litigation for wrong doing or negligence than they do in prevention and the safety of their customers. While the topic is sobering, this production is a beacon of light, reminding us why we love the theater. DotSMS reveals to us characters which we can relate to and immerses us in their very real and heart-rending tale. It provokes us to think and to question. Most importantly, DotSMS lingers in our minds long after the lights come on, we stand up and exit the theater.

Centerstage's "Death on the Supermarket Shelf".

(l-r) Melanie Hampton (as mother, Lynn Reiner), Jamie Pederson (as father, Ed Reiner and Cora Pearlstein (as daughter, Michelle Reiner)
Photo Credit: Michelle Smith-Lewis

I arrive at the theater unsure of what to expect. In the opening ten minutes of the production, the audience is assaulted with a host of characters and disparate situations without a context or foundation to frame them. As the tale begins to reveal itself and connections are made between the characters, I found myself swept along in the drama. The haunting Ry Cooder-esque music sung by a talented Cooper Harris-Turner and Sara Henley-Hicks, initially may seem like an odd choice, but over the course of the play, really pays off and adds an emotional punch that just works.

The wonderfully disturbing and unforgettable scene of Lynn Reiner (Melanie Hampton) dying in front of her child Michelle (played by the delightful Cora Pearlstein) was the emotional highlight of the production that put a face on the victims and humanized these tragic deaths. With that scene etched in our minds, later in the play when Cora sings ‘Life is Beautiful’; it is stark and heartbreaking, but when it turns into a duet with her father played by Jamie Pederson, it is endearing and sweet. DotSMS is an intense emotional roller-coaster ride guaranteed to inspire, incite a range of emotions and leave you wondering why it look thirty plus years for this information to surface.

Dale Bowers, as CEO of Johnson & Johnson James Burke, does a masterful job of juggling the facts and deflecting any inference that J&J were negligent; resisting any notion that the poisonings were not the result of a lone madman. J&J aptly handled law enforcement, the victims’ families and to some were slow to pull Extra Strength Tylenol from the shelves. Perhaps more offensive than that, they craftily managed to emerge from the scandal in the media’s eyes as heroic, caring and were even seen as victims themselves.

alt text for images

Melanie Hampton (as mother, Lynn Reiner) and the shadows of other Tylenol poisoning victims
Photo Credit: Michelle Smith-Lewis

In the end, DotSMS reawakens our compassion for the plight of others. Alan Bryce, the author of this play, reminds us that these characters are not fictitious creations, they are our neighbors, family members and friends. As such, our ire rises as we bear witness as the authorities seem more intent on protecting Johnson & Johnson and attacking victims, than in pursing the truth. We weep with the families and loved ones of those individuals lost in this tragedy. We rage against the injustice of it all.

Who can say whether our internal sense of justice was present at birth or whether it was developed and learned over time through experience? This story does not easily align with our experience. This is not a TV drama, wrapping up loose ends in a mere 42 minutes with the bad guy getting carted off to prison. DotSMS takes you on a journey, not always pleasant but an essential one. It reminds us of an important truth which we have largely forgotten. Every time we allow a government or a corporation to pursue its own interests at the expense of individual human rights, safety or justice, we corporately lose another piece of our dwindling humanity.

Perhaps we have become jaded as a nation; so used to disasters where hundreds if not thousands of lives are lost, that the loss of seven lives no longer registers in our conscience, but in DotSMS, Alan Bryce has put a face on the victims and their families. We bear witness to the eight-year-old daughter as she loses her mother. We watch in disgust as the misguided legal process seemingly exert more energy in attempting to lay the blame at the feet of a grieving husband than in trying to identify the actual perpetrator of this crime. We are dumbfounded by a corporation so invested in the bottom line, that they willfully destroy evidence, leverage strong arm tactics with the victim’s families and generally do anything to deflect the spotlight of truth from themselves onto anyone else, including Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

Alan Bryce’s “Death on the Supermarket Shelf” keeps alive the memories of those cut down by this tragedy and it nags at our conscience that a company praised as the “gold metal standard” for dealing with a crisis, may have actively worked against discovery of the truth, manipulated the legal system to prevent people with knowledge of the situation from speaking out and denied families an equitable settlement for their loss. Then again, what possible settlement could replace the loss of one’s twelve-year-old daughter or fill the emotional hole in the lives of four children forced to grow up without their mother?

Yes, they might be the “gold metal standard” for how one should handle the media, law enforcement, the public and the victims, but where justice and integrity is concerned, that is not a compliment. It is an indictment and should stand as a warning to all of us, that in a single-minded pursuit of profit without integrity, each one of us is considered expendable, an acceptable loss in doing business.

J&J counted on the fact that there is little in this world that can hold the public’s cynical attention for long. They calculated on the public doing the one thing that the families impacted by these events can never hope to do and that is to forget it. My concern is that Alan Bryce’s play, however thought provoking and significant, will become just more background noise against our overly stimulated lifestyles. Do not let that happen. People need to come and experience this production, talk about it with their friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. You will leave changed.

Death on the Supermarket Shelf runs through March 26th at Centerstage Theatre in Federal Way. For ticket information, checkout