ATHENS, Ga. No one who packed the humble cinderblock community theater Friday could forget the real-life tragedy that unfolded there a few months ago, the shooting spree that claimed three of the troupe's members.
But the sold-out performance, the first since the members were gunned down, was not about the "elephant in the room," as several members referred to the April 25 shooting.
Instead, it was about healing. And, above all, the performance of Neil Simon's comedy "Fools" was about having fun.
"It's cathartic," said Drew Doss, who stepped in to direct the show after the previous director's husband was gunned down. "It's obviously been difficult. But this is something we needed to do to move forward."
The community troupe was finishing one play's run and preparing to start rehearsals for "Fools" on April 25 when former University of Georgia marketing professor George Zinkhan opened fire on his wife, Marie Bruce, an Augusta native, and others gathered around the benches outside the Athens Community Theater during a reunion.
The gunfire claimed three beloved members of the Town & Gown Players: Bruce, the group's president and a gifted actor and director; Tom Tanner, a brainy performer; and Ben Teague, a master set designer who kept his own blog on the technical aspects of the theater.
The killings ended the run of "Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure," which featured Tanner as John Watson.
The group had already cast the performers for "Fools," a comedy about a town cursed with stupidity. Though none of those killed were to act in the play, Teague's wife stepped down as its director.
The troupe members took a few weeks off to mourn before returning to their routine schedule: About six weeks of weeknight rehearsals of three or four hours each, and weekends full of building sets. Their hard work paid off with a crisp performance that earned them laugh after laugh and a heartfelt standing ovation.
Authorities say Zinkhan first targeted Tanner, a 40-year-old Clemson University economist his wife may have been seeing. Then he turned the gun on his 47-year-old wife, who was an attorney. The third victim, 63-year-old Teague, was apparently in the wrong place at the wrong time, police say.
Just as quickly, Zinkhan was gone. Bulletins were issued nationwide and authorities watched airports in case he tried to flee to Amsterdam, where he had taught part-time at a university.
Police soon found Zinkhan's wrecked Jeep in a ravine in on the outskirts of Athens. Two weeks after the shootings, they found the 57-year-old's body hidden in a shallow grave he dug before shooting himself in the head.
For many of the troupe members, retaking the stage was the best way they knew to honor their friends.
"This was a big part of their lives and they would want us to move on," said Florence King, a member of the troupe for 22 years. "We can't let it take over."
Eric Wagoner, the troupe's new president, said the performance helped them "reclaim" the theater and begin to heal.
"For me, it's a marker to put the events behind me and look to the future," said Wagoner. "I'll carry Ben, Marie and Tom with me. But I'm also happy that George could not destroy what Ben, Marie and Tom worked so hard to build."
Doss, the director, acknowledged the "trying times" before the play. And then he quickly issued a plea urging talented actors to join the troupe.
After all, casting for the next play begins Monday.