In search of motivation

Using a 2010 serial arson case in Texas, Ashland playwright Bert Axel Anderson has written a play examining the misguided passions of young men emerging from fundamentalist upbringings and seeking a sense of empowerment by burning churches.

The play, "Mr. Brightside and the Bonfire Nights," will show at 8 p.m. Monday and Wednesday, May 9 and 11, at Ashland's Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 87 Fourth St.

Anderson, 82, an Episcopal minister with a doctorate in psychology, notes that the two men in the Texas case had major parental-abandonment issues and were sentenced to life in prison for torching 10 churches. The "ringleader" in the case, Jason Bourque, was abandoned by his mother and raised by grandparents in a Christian fundamentalist setting.

Anderson worked much of his life with at-risk youth in residential settings, experienced the early loss of his mother and has been through the burning of a church (not arson) where he was a minister — and says he wanted to explore these parallels "so maybe I can discover their motivation."

His play is set in California and, he adds, is a work of fiction.

"The young man in the Texas case was a championship debater, all A's, an Eagle Scout and built homes with Habitat for Humanity before doing these hideous crimes," Anderson says. "You've got to try to make sense of it somehow.

"No one listened to him. He was always cut off when talking. He had bad dreams," Anderson says, adding that the "message" of his play is that boys around age 20 are frequently at risk, as seen in suicide and school shooting episodes, and that much of it goes back to "repression, trying to make the person be good, especially when we don't listen to them."

As in the Texas case, Anderson says, his character, Justin, played by Southern Oregon University theater arts student Shayne Lancaster, "isn't that bad at the start, but gets worse as everyone tries to discipline and shame him."

His grandfather is played by Bruce Lorange. The grandmother is Rochelle Savitt of Medford and Justin's girlfriend is played by Jessie Scales, also an SOU theater arts student. The director is Janet Rodkey.

Cameron McCandless, executive director of Mediation Works, says many of the same issues are found in her Restorative Justice classes, where young offenders are referred by parole officers so, instead of just being incarcerated, they come to a sense of empathy for their victims and responsibility for what they've done.

In the Texas church burnings, the offenders got multiple life sentences, as the justice system, she notes, saw it as a crime against the state.

"They (offenders) have to understand that the victim is the one who suffers actual harm and they learn empathy for the victim," McCandless says. "It's not so much that laws have been broken. It's not about punishment."

Referring to a TV interview with the Texas arsonist, viewable online, McCandless says, "He blamed his medications, didn't mention his grandparents or the harm to the community and took no responsibility for the millions of dollars in damage he did ... He is a victim of abandonment and the service of justice is not that he spend nine lifetimes in jail. It doesn't help the churches or him."

When offenders are "really listened to" in her Victim Assistance and Youth Accountability classes, it develops "bonds of responsibility and support," she says.

"You see these kids and their foster parents in tears. They see what they've done and won't do again," McCandless says. "They dialog with their actual victims. The victims speak up and ask them questions and talk about their story. It takes the fear away, and victims have a lot of fear because of what happened to them."

Anderson wrote two earlier plays, including a stage adaptation of Marion Woodman's "Bone Dying Into Life" — about a woman's battle with cancer.

"Mr. Brightside" is the title of a song by The Killers which begins, "I'm coming out of my cage ..."

Tickets cost $15, $5 for students, and are available at Paddington Station in Ashland, Grocery Outlet in Medford or by calling 541-708-0420. All proceeds will benefit Mediation Works.

Visit for more about Atelier Stage 2.

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