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Imagine this scenario played out onstage: A father bilks people who trust him out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, enabling him and his familyhis wife and their three sons, 15, 22, and 26,to settle in Santa Barbara, Calif. There, they live lavishly, as Jaguar-driving neighbors to Kevin Costner and Warren Christopher. Having become increasingly fundamentalist, the parents send their youngest child to a Christian school and forbid the older sons to date.
The financial scheming eventually catches up with him. The family flees to the Midwest, where the father grew up and where some of his relatives still live. They get as far as Springfield, Ill., before their car breaks down. Unable to pay for the car’s repair, they stay a few days at the Mansion View Inn and Suites, checking out on Mother’s Day, only to check back into Room 221 later in the day. It is there that the father unveils a plan of action: The members of the family will help kill one another. He suggests that they commit suicide the honorable way, Samurai-style.
The family walks three miles in search of weapons. After finding several stores closed on Sunday, they are finally able to buy five long-blade knives. They return to the hotel room, where the father sits on the bed, shirtless, and asks his middle son whether he willif he sees his father falteringhelp finish the job.
He agrees. The father does lose his nerve, and as the blade hovers over his stomach, the son places one hand on his father’s back and the other on the knife butt. Exhaling, he thrusts the knife hard into his father’s abdomen and draws it stiffly downward, opening a long gash.
The father writhes for a moment in pain, and the two eldest sons decide they need to end his suffering. The middle child again grabs the knife, stabbing his father twice in the throatonce to cut his windpipe and once to sever his jugular. As the father bleeds to death on the covers, the family turns to Plan B: Call the police. All but the middle son are eventually released by the authorities. The middle son, after pleading guilty, avoids a prison term and gets four years’ probation. The family members then try to piece their lives together.
Sounds like fiction, but it actually happened in 1996 to John McCreery, his wife Carole Ann, eldest son Patrick, middle son Shannon, and the youngest, whose name is still being withheld. They lived a quirkybut far from homicidal15 years in the leafy Washington suburbs before spiraling into greed, religious zealotry, psychological instability, and death. Now, like something out of Sophocles, their tale may be headed to the stage.
Shockingly (in this post-O.J. era), the McCreerys’ murder-suicide pact received hardly any media attention in Washington. Barbara McConagha heard about it from friends in the close-knit, affluent Bethesda neighborhood she shared with the McCreerys from 1977 until 1992. McConagha, who like many of her friends still lives in the neighborhood, knew the McCreerys only in passing, because her three children went to school with two eldest McCreery boys at Westbrook Elementary. But some of her neighbors knew the family better, and after the story came to light, they told McConagha innumerable tidbits about the clan’s travails. (From 1976-81, I was a Westbrook classmate and basketball teammate of Patrick McCreery.)
The events that led up to John McCreery’s death appalled and moved McConagha. Although she herself had been tormented by a parent (“I was emotionally and physically abused by my revolting mother,” she says), she was unable to imagine how the family could end up as it did. McConagha decided to weigh the issues in her own way: as a playwright. The writerwho was twice nominated for a Helen Hayes award, for Mother’s Day in 1990 and The Obituary Bowl last yearhas fictionalized the McCreerys’ tale in a 90-minute play that was read earlier this year at Round House Theatre. She has since revised the play, now named Revelation, based on the comments of friends of the McCreerys whom she invited to the reading.
“I hope it will be produced, because it’s such a powerful story,” McConagha says. “If I can’t make it work, it’s certainly my fault.” Indeed, she says she has kept the death scene absolutely intact because no dramatist could improve upon it. What McConagha did was cut back on plot exposition; instead of story, she’s focusing on the religious and psychological dimensions of her fictional family. In fact, in her play, the father is named Paul, the mother, Grace, and the two eldest sons, Calvin and Luther.
McConagha recalls that John and Carole Ann attended a local mainline Episcopalian church, appearing oncewith their youngest sonin a Christmas pageant as Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. (McConagha, who is Jewish, says, “A lot of people found that touching and wonderful. I found it bizarre.”) The McCreerys, sometimes expressing disgust at their fellow congregants’ easy affluence and light-handed faith, later joined a Presbyterian congregation. Then they began to drift toward evangelical Christianity.
Though she’s reluctant to speculate on what motivated the real-life McCreerys, McConagha sees a possible link between the family’s religiosity and John McCreery’s financial schemes. In her research, she has noticed a concern among some conservative Christians that members of their flocks could be tempted by pyramid schemes, either as bilkers or as the bilked. That, she says, is because certain millenarian sects encourage members to grow rich in this life while telling them to expect an eventual end to earthly existence. If John McCreery was thinking along these lines, she figures, “He might have miscalculated about the time: He was caught before the millennium ran out.”
In general, the people at this year’s reading who knew the McCreerys claimed that McConagha had made John less appealing a person than he was. “‘He was so extremely charming,’ they said, ‘that you didn’t mind if he was swindling you,’” the playwright says. “He really seemed like an attractive person.” It is this aspect that simultaneously fascinates and revolts McConagha. “To me, it’s the worst case of child abuse ever I’ve ever heard of. I’m intrigued by the power the parents had to get away with such crap. I’ve heard of fathers who taught their children to steal, and that’s bad enough. But I can’t imagine a father asking his son to kill him.”
Yet at the same time, McConagha’s experience as a battered child leads her to express a weird admiration for the execution of the scenario in Room 221. After all, the preyed-upon children do manage to end their father’s hold on them. “I have two sons and a daughter, and none of them do anything I say,” she says. “That’s why I’m so fascinated with the McCreerys and the loyalty they exhibited until the end. If there’s a moral, it’s to rebel against your parents. It’s not considered right, but in my naive opinion, the healthy one is Shannonthe one who stopped the game by killing his father.”CP