WORTHINGTON -- The stage is set -- although there isn't really a stage -- for an event that combines amateur sleuthing, gastronomic indulging and, hopefully, a lot of laughing.
"AlumDie," an interactive mystery dinner theater, will be offered by Grassroots Community Theater in six performances Friday through Sunday at the Historic Dayton House, 1311 Fourth Ave., Worthington.
"We were kind of looking for a winter home," explained director Mary Jane Mardesen about the Grassroots group that produced its previous show at Pioneer Village last fall. "We were happy at Pioneer Village, but heating is an issue, and we couldn't do something in the winter out there. So we decided to do something outside the box. Why do we have to have a stage? Where could we house a sizable crowd? Who could do food? The Dayton House was brought up because the very nature of the house is a draw for folks."
While the Historic Dayton House seems like the perfect venue for staging a mystery dinner theater, it still poses some unique challenges. Instead of performing on a stage, the cast will be very up close and personal with its audience.
And because the main floor space is broken up into separate rooms -- there is no large gathering area -- the play will be performed twice each of the three days.
"We're going to do two seatings," explained Mardesen. "The first group will be in the rooms on the left, which seats about 32 comfortably. We'll feed them and perform for them. Then two hours later, it will shift to the other side. Those guests will arrive for the second seating, and we'll go over and perform for them. On paper it looks really good."
Because of time and space constraints, Mardesen spent a lot of time researching an appropriate theatrical vehicle.
"The problem was time," she said. "A lot of plays for interactive dinner theater are all two hours or more. The problem was finding one short enough that had somewhat of a decent plot."
"AlumDie" -- a play on the word "alumni" -- takes place at a 20-year college reunion. The guest of honor, Professor Perkins, turns up dead before he has time to accept his award.
"The alumni decide that, rather than call the police, they are going to solve the murder," Mardesen explained. "They figure it will put the college on the map because its graduates are savvy enough to solve this mystery."
The cast of six not only had to learn the scripted lines, but also have to be ready to improvise, as the audience will be brought into the action.
"It's interactive, so they're going to put the pressure on the audience to do a little responding," said Mardesen. "They might make fun of a few of them, gently, as the audience members become alumni themselves at the reunion dinner."
The improvisational aspect is new to cast member Cindy Teerink, who plays the role of Barb, the late professor's assistant. She admitted to thinking up some improvisational possibilities -- such as taking over an audience member's chair -- last week on the way to an appointment in Sioux Falls, S.D.
"I think it's going to be very funny," she said. "I wouldn't say I'm really good at improv, but the people around me will help me be good at improv."
Teerink describes her character as "not all quite put together. I've been teaching at the school as his assistant since I've been here, and I haven't done much to make my own mark. I would say she's a little scatterbrained. I hope there's not typecasting going on. ... And I get to be a crier -- the professor, I can't believe he's gone."
Much more familiar with interactive theater is John Widboom, who for this production has the role of the janitor unlucky enough to find the dead body and whose character is integral to a plot twist.
Widboom is a veteran of improvisation, having for many years played the role of the villain for the annual Fourth of July melodrama at Pioneer Village.
"This is a done deal for me -- one practice, and I'm ready to go," he joked. "I couldn't quite convince Mary Jane about that. I get to carry a pail around, and I'm going to have my book in there, in case I get stumped."
The cast has been rehearsing the play at the Dayton House, working around empty chairs that will be filled with diners. All the Grassroots players realize the success of the play will hinge on their ability to engage the audience in the action.
"This is going to be a very cute, fun play," Widboom said. "If we can get the audience to come and join right in, if somebody's willing to laugh at the good lines, then the whole crowd will get involved. It's certainly going to be a new experience. It will be up to us to move between the two rooms and make it work."
"We will literally be performing between the tables," Teerink said. "But Mary Jane is such a great director, that I predict it will be fine."
Seatings/performances are scheduled for 6 and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. The evening menus will feature a choice between a chicken or pork tenderloin entrée accompanied by salad, potatoes and dessert. The Sunday luncheons will be a lighter meal with a croissant sandwich and dessert.
Reservations can be made by calling the Dayton House, 727-1311.
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at