A Murder is Announced, by Agatha Christie, adapted by Leslie Darbon. Directed by Aaron Holbritter.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"He left without a fuss. . .like a lamb."
John Trainor, Clara Childress (Detective and Suspect); photo: Abe Phelps
It is the morning of Friday the 13th in an unspecified month and year shortly after the end of World War II. The double drawing room of Little Paddocks, the home of Lettie Blacklock in the village of Chipping Cleghorn is the setting. The local newspaper carries an announcement in the personals that a murder is announced for that very evening at 6:30 in that very house and guests are invited. This being rural England, guests arrive. These are Mrs. Swettenham, her son Edmond and very spry lady visiting the village temporarily, Miss Jane Marple. They join the residents of the house including Lettie and her sister Bunner, Patrick and his sister Julia, Phillipa - a single mother, and Mitzi the Russian maid-of-all-work.
When, at 6:30 precisely, a man arrives barking orders in an accented voice, the lights in the house all go off and three shots ring out, it is really no surprise to anyone. They have suspected a game and when the lights come on and it is revealed that a real man, a stranger, is really dead, that is when the fun truly begins. It is Christie's way of leading her enthusiasts into the true natures of the people in the room. The outright lies, the subtle fibs, the deft excuses and the surprising twists and turns of the plot that follow are the joyful end of the writing. This is not one of those plays with secret pannels and quiet movement and long dim light cues. This is the intellectual Christie, talky and nerve-wracking with revelations that come so swiftly and effortlessly that you know you're being led up a garden path, again and again.
This is delicious, by the way, almost as much as the cake that triumphs in act two, "delicious death," a chocolate and honey confection that people would die for. Without giving away too much of the inner working of the plot there are two deaths on stage and the second one - the actor (non-gender specific) who performs it will understand what I'm saying - is almost as delicious as the cake, performed with immense style and grace, a literal, or literary, show-stopper.
While this book and play may not be Christie's absolute best, it is entertaining and fascinating as each layer of possible truth is exposed. In fact, the answers come so fast and furious that it becomes harder and harder to believe them, to understand how they can be truths. The honest truth is, of course, that some of them are not the truth. Therein lies the fun in this piece.
The Theater Barn, well-known for their annual Christie play (this is their 24th), does rather well by this work. The eleven actors take on twelve roles here and they populate a handsome set designed by company founder Abe Phelps. A troupe of old-hands and new ones are on board and they each deliver nicely in their roles. Meg Dooley, a popular favorite here, plays Lettie (or Letitia) Blacklock, mistress of the manor. She is, as you might suspect, fraught. Lettie tries to maintain her cool demeanor but it is impossible under the circumstances with which she is confronted: attempted murder, mistaken identity, intrusive visitors, a helpless, hapless sister. Dooley gets the frustration just right and does it looking ravishing in her costumes, her lush red hair coiffed to absolute perfection. This is a good role for her and as the play progresses she gets better and better in it.
Playing her sister Bunny (or Bunner) is Joan Coombs in a strangely insupportable part. Bunny is a complainer who has no complaints and so lives that uneasy frustration that seems to be a genetic attribute in this play. Coombs brings a quietude and still leaves destruction in her wake. It is a terrific role for Coombs who brings it off as though it was a natural combination of qualities.
Noah Mefford and Alyssa H. Chase are brother and sister Patrick and Julia, guests in the house, cousins of Lettie and Bunny. Mefford is handsomely creepy and Chase is his equal, more handsome than pretty and more mysterious than provocative. Mefford needs to learn the art of Christie hesitation but otherwise his performance is flawless. Chase never wavers in her "stick up the back" posture or her "stiff-upper-lip" reactions to whatever happens around her. They made a very good team.
Clara Childress is an arresting Phillipa, beautiful in a classic 1940s British way and subtle in voice and movement. Nancy Hammell plays the oddball Mrs. Swettenham with marvelous style and dash. As her son, Edmond, Caleb John Cushing does the impossible: he makes a nerdy young Britisher into a charmingly sympathetic youth. Levi Squier does well as Mellars, the policeman.
The other three performers who truly shine in this play are John Trainor in his now very accustomed role as the British Inspector, Craddock this time, who comes in to solve the case. This is a role he has played before and will play again, I suspect, and it is one that he cannot miss with as he advances the quizzical look and the technical voice into the realm of real figure and not caricature. Rie Lee is a lovely Miss Marple, but her voice is a quiet, softspoken one which was, too often, hard to hear. Still she brings remarkable style and tension onto the stage with her and she could be a perfect Marple if she projected that sweet voice. It is Shannon Paul as Mitzi, the maid, who holds center stage in this play. Whether announcing new arrivals, confessing her part in the murders, creating a fuss about her place in world affairs or simply resigning her post, she has the audience in her hands and she makes the most of it. This is a perfectly wonderful performance and one not to be missed.
Shimra Janie Fine has created excellent costumes for these characters and Allen Phelps has brought light to the proceedings. The production elements in this show work their magic and keep us grounded in the realities of the proceedings.
I am one of those audience members here who always enjoy the Christie production. This one is just a bit spotty with a new director doing a very good job but without the finesse that will come with more experience in this area. While there was nothing wrong on this stage, there were some things that could have been better, particularly the staging of the first murder. Later dialogue did not seem to bear out the truths that are so important to a perfect Christie. If you've never seen this play, this production will win you to its side. If you have seen this play you will find some fascinating bits that you will cherish along with other great memories of the play.
Meg Dooley and Rie Lee (Distraught and Fraught); photo: Abe Phelps
John Trainor and Rie Lee (Master Sleuth and Mistress of Truth); photo: Abe Phelps
A Murder is Announced plays through July 26 at the Theater Barn located at 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go on line at www.theaterbarn.com.