On May 27th, University Theatre at N.C. State opened its three-play summer season, entitled “TheatreFest 2010: It’s Murder,” with a promising production of Dame Agatha Christie’s A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED, which begins when a cheeky personal ad, ostensibly placed by the would-be killer in the Oct. 13, 1950 issue of the local newspaper, announces that a murder will take place that very night at 6:30 p.m. at Little Paddocks in the sleepy English village of Chipping Cleghorn. What a chilling wakeup call for Letitia Blacklock (Marilee Spell), the amiable mistress of the early Victorian house called Little Paddocks, and her best friend from childhood Dora Bunner (Lynda Clark), whose skittish demeanor and fluttery mannerisms have earned her the nickname “Bunny.”
There is a drop-in scheduled for particular Friday the 13th, but the party is interrupted by a heavily accented intruder, dressed in black and apparently intent on robbery, who shouts “Stick ’em up!” Then there’s a momentary blackout, shots ring out, and SOMETHING very serious happens. Afterwards, the question is whodunit? WHO fired those shots — and WHY? It takes the better part of two hours to find out in Leslie Darbon’s 1977 stage adaptation of Dame Agatha’s classic crime novel, which was her 50th book, when it was published in 1950, and the fourth novel in the Miss Marple series.
While Marilee Spell is playing the gracious hostess of the house as Letty Blacklock with warmth and wit, Lynda Clark is hamming it up hilariously as Bunny, whose constant worm-on-a-hot-brick squirming and herky-jerky movements when she crosses the room heighten the hilarity.
JoAnne Dickinson is suitably cerebral as the silver-haired spinster-sleuth Miss Jane Marple; and David A. Klionsky adds a gritty portrait of the gruff but equally intuitive Detective Inspector Dermot Craddock, who reluctantly allows the resourceful Miss Marple to become involved in his investigation.
Sandi Sullivan contributes a cheeky cameo as Miss Blacklock’s high-strung and often impertinent Hungarian-refugee cook and housekeeper Mitzi Kosinski, who makes a divine chocolate cake but is constantly threatening to quit. Mary Guthrie and Joel T. Horton hit all the right character notes as Miss Blacklock’s distant cousins Julia and Patrick Simmons, who call her Aunt Letitia; and Collette Rutherford hints at troubled waters under her calm exterior as Miss Blacklock’s paid boarder Phillipa Haymes, an impecunious young World War II widow with a son in a pricey boarding school.
Janis Kaye Coville is good as the elderly American visitor and doting mother Clara Sweetenham; but George Kaiser is better as her hopelessly spoiled son, Edmund, who aspires to be a novelist and is intrigued by the unfolding murder mystery that keeps the audience of A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED sitting on the edge of their seats. Whitney Beth Griffin makes the most of her brief moments in the spotlight as Miss Marple’s friend, the local vicar’s wife Bunch Harmon; and Linh B. Schladweiler ably does double duty, in two crisp cameos, as shady Swiss immigrant Rudi Scherz, who works at a local spa, and local constable Sergeant Mellors, who bluffly assists Inspector Craddock in his investigation. Naomi Eckhaus as Liz Hinchcliffe and Barbara DiCiero as Miss Hinchcliffe’s giggly companion Amy Murgatroyd complete the cast.
Guest director Rachel Klem, who serves as managing director for Common Ground Theatre in Durham, NC, capably orchestrates the suspense, leavened with comedy, that makes A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED such an treat both for Agatha Christie fans and for more recent generations encountering Dame Agatha’s twisty little murder mysteries for the first time. There are still a few rough spots for Klem to smooth, but scenic designer Nicholas Purdy’s handsome drawing-room set and the vintage fashions recreated by costume designers John C. McIlwee and Jennifer Dasher are both eye-pleasing creations that, combined with Paul Pharris’ lighting and sound design, add authenticity to the proceedings and help transport the TheatreFest 2010 audience back 60 years in time and thousands of miles across the Big Pond to the charming English village of Chipping Cleghorn, whose convivial inhabitants are about to be jolted out of their post-Word War II complacency by the knowledge that there’s a murderer in their midst.
University Theatre at N.C. State presents A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED, as part of TheatreFest 2010, at 8 p.m. June 2, 5, 9, and 11 in the Titmus Theatre in Frank Thompson Hall, on E. Dunn Ave. at Jensen Dr., in Raleigh, North Carolina 27607. TICKETS: $15 ($13 students and seniors and $5 NCSU students). BOX OFFICE: 919/515-1100 or http://purchase.tickets.com/. SHOW: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/theatrefest/index.html. PRESENTER: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/index.html. VENUE: http://www.ncsu.edu/arts/thompson/index.html. PARKING/DIRECTIONS: http://www.ncsu.edu/arts/mapsanddirections.html. OTHER LINKS: Agatha Christie: http://www.agathachristie.com/ (official website), http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=3916 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002005/ (Internet Movie Database).
by Robert W. McDowell
Robert McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review of Raleigh, NC. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.E-mail RobertM748[at]aol.com to start your FREE subscription to this weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter.