“I think that she’s brought us to a point that she expects us to be able to carry the show on our own.”
— Jordyn Caddy, a Moffat County High School senior, on MCHS theater teacher Heather Dahlberg
The house lights dimmed and the audience went quiet Thursday night in the Moffat County High School auditorium.
All eyes were trained on the curtain, waiting for the premier of “Rehearsal for Murder,” a 1930s-era mystery, as the cast waited in the wings.
It was, it appeared, an opening night not unlike others on the MCHS stage since Heather Dahlberg took the helm of the theater department about two years ago.
Yet a day before, a shadow had fallen over the 15-member cast of the play.
Just before a dress rehearsal Wednesday, Heather learned the plane carrying her mother, brother and sister-in-law had crashed that morning.
Mae Elaine Dahlberg, 76, Stuart Douglas Dahlberg, 52, and his wife, 36-year-old Ivelisse Suarez Morillo, were on their way to see the play when their single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza went down for reasons still unknown near Glencoe, Minn., the McLeod County, Minn., Sheriff’s Office reported.
There were no survivors.
The tragedy sent shockwaves through the cast and crew.
Mae was a devoted supporter of the high school’s theater and choir programs, and she often traveled to Craig to watch Heather’s students perform, cast member Kat Thompson said.
“They’re really just a loving family, so to hear about this terrible loss kind of really cut deep into everyone,” said Kat, an MCHS senior.
The students had a choice: postpone the play’s opening or continue as planned.
Director, cast and crew all came to the same conclusion.
“Knowing our director, I knew the show would go on,” Kat said. “There was no doubt about it, really.”
As the lights dimmed and the auditorium grew silent Thursday, Heather stepped into the spotlight to greet the audience.
They had come to see a show, and neither she nor her students were about to disappoint them.
The actors were adamant about continuing with the production, not solely for the audience, but also for their director and her mother, two women who stood behind them unequivocally and pushed them to give their utmost, Kat said.
Mae, who hailed from St. Cloud, Minn., and known to Heather’s students affectionately as “Momma D,” had become a familiar and welcome presence in the MCHS theater department.
“She (was) about this big,” Kat said, holding a hand shoulder height, “and always smiling.”
She loved to watch Heather’s classes, and she often helped make sure the students’ costumes were ready for the stage before theater productions, Heather’s friend Melinda Hall said.
“You’d always see her with an iron in her hand in the dressing room,” she said.
In Kat’s eyes, continuing with the play Thursday night wasn’t simply a matter of duty — it also was a way of honoring Momma D’s memory.
“Absolutely,” she said. “This show is completely for her and the whole family.”
As the play began, Skooter Byrnes, cast as successful Broadway playwright Alex Dennison, walked on stage.
Other actors listened for the cues in the wings or waited in the near pitch-black darkness behind the set.
They wore resplendent costumes from the late 1930s, including dresses and hats Heather’s grandmother once wore.
It was a fitting personal touch for a play Heather and her students had poured so much of themselves into.
“This has been her life for the last three months,” said Emmi Hall, a 2011 MCHS graduate and one of Heather’s former student actors.
The director groomed her actors to give a professional performance and to take ownership of the production.
“I think that she’s brought us to a point that she expects us to be able to carry the show on our own,” said Jordyn Caddy, a senior cast member. “At a point, she just sits back and she’s like, ‘Alright, it’s yours.’”
In light of the family tragedy, Heather wasn’t obligated to direct the play, MCHS Principal Thom Schnellinger said Thursday.
She was in the dressing room before the opening performance, helping students prepare for opening night, yet it seemed the students had the production in hand.
Between touching up their makeup and adjusting their microphones during intermission, they gave each other tips and encouragement.
Melinda volunteered to help with the production, yet her role was mainly centered on organizing other parent volunteers and making sure students had what they needed, she said.
The actors themselves took care of the rest.
“(With) the commitment that these kids have made to the play — it’s really running itself,” she said.
About 30 minutes before the play debuted Thursday night, actors in full costume and makeup filed into the MCHS band room. As if on cue, they formed a circle in the middle of the room and began to warm up their voices.
Heather wasn’t there to keep them focused as their audience milled into the nearby auditorium. But, they didn’t need prodding or reminding.
They knew the high bar she had set.
“She expects excellence from them,” Melinda said.
That knowledge and everything they needed to perform, they already had. It was in their minds, emblazoned there by the director, teacher and mentor they know simply as Miss D.
Heather, who declined to comment for this story, expressed her pride in her students in her director’s notes, written before Wednesday’s rehearsal and included in the playbill.
“I am … proud to say how sophisticated my student actors have become,” she wrote. “They loved the idea of sinking their teeth into a dramatic mystery where their acting skills would truly be put to the test.”
Her words are particularly fitting now.
The students’ determination, as well as their acting, were tested, and in Melinda’s view, neither were found wavering.
“They did it,” she said Friday. “They did their job.”
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