Agatha Christie’s Ordeal By Innocence Adapted by Mary Jane Hansen Directed by Elizabeth Swain
A Bad Penny Makes Good in the End
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
In an unusual way Agatha Christie’s personal favorite novel has made its way onto the stage at the New York State Theater Institute in the Schacht Fine Arts Center at Russell Sage College in Troy, New York. Since September 2003 this world premiere production has been in development through the interest and generosity of Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard, Chairman of Agatha Chrstie Ltd., which controls the rights to all of her works. It has been painstakingly adapted for the stage by Mary Jane Hansen, a long-time member of the NYSTI company, who was approved as adaptor in July, 2005. This all came about because the Christie people in Great Britain, aware of NYSTI’s long production relationship with the works of Ms. Christie, contacted Founder and Artistic Director Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder to thank NYSTI for its work in the past.
What is presently on the stage shows a terrific judgement call on the part of Prichard and his associates. The play is fascinating and the production is a gem.
Directed by actress and teacher Elizabeth Swain, up from the Big Apple for this assignment, the company of 20 actors and actresses, most of them professionals and members of Actors' Equity Association, play through the 26 scenes of the play on a complex and eye-catching set. As complex as the physical production are the characters themselves. This is no Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot play. Tommy and Tuppence are long-retired to the resorts of East Anglia by the time of this work. The "detective" hero is not a professional killer-catcher and he only appeared in this one book, this one play. His presence is totally plot-driven. He is Dr. Arthur Calgary, a geophysicist recently returned from an Antarctic Expedition.
Perhaps it is his cold manner of eying those about him, seeing the flaw in the diamond-cold demeanors, that makes him so unusual a hero. He arrives on the scene at the Argyle home in the first moments of the play, a man with news and a desire to clear the name of Jack Argyle, imprisoned for the murder of his mother two years earlier. He learns that the alibi he can personally supply for the time of the murder won’t help anyone: Jack is dead; his father, Leo, is satisfied with the verdict; the other relatives are afraid of having the case re-opened. His news is ungratefully received. End of story.
Well, Agatha Christie could no more end a story with such human betrayal than she could dance naked on the head of a pin. What follows is a long, convoluted and marvelously constructed unfolding of family secrets, personal foibles and romantic confusions. If the cast speak a bit fast, in a perfectly clipped and brittle British manner, blame the author: she has provided almost too much information to be laid out before us. If they do it with period style - the year is 1958, and if they do it with perfect poise and positively posh panache, lay the blame for that at the feet of the director. Swain, helped by her costume designer Robert Anton, has brought to life the Christie characters exactly as she must have seen and heard them in her head as she wrote down their story.
Ron Komora, in his eleventh season with NYSTI brings a true-life feeling to his portrayal of Dr. Calgary. Everyone of his scenes, speeches, exchanges is clarion. He sets the standard for reality in this play. John Romeo as police Superintendent Huish is almost his match. Their final scene together is fascinating, a match of wits with a clear winner clearly acknowledged. One of Swain’s brilliant little touches, the humanizing elements of this production, is Romeo’s set of reactions to Komora’s fully-blossomed, carefully observed theories.
David Bunce, in his twenty-fourth season here, plays the husband of one of the Argyle’s daughters. Trapped in a wheelchair, twenty feet up in the air, he plays with the ease and comfort of a man who has no fears in life. He is so good at what he does that any fear or trepidation held by the audience over his constant movement on the upper level stage dissipates quickly. Playing his wife, Mary Argyle Durrant, is none other than the play’s author, Mary Jane Hansen. It is easy to see why she has played so many lead roles with this company. Her work is sublime.
The other living Argyle children (remember, Jack the convicted killer is dead) are played by David Girard, Shannon Rafferty and the brilliant Katie Ann McDermott whose Hester Argyle comes complete with nervous twitches, telltale secrets and a very long pair of legs. More British, it would seem, than Cate Blanchett, McDermott manages love scenes and paranoia with equal grace and charm.
Yvonne Perry is Gwenda Vaughan (yes, Gwenda - there is no British speech impediment here), Leo’s secretary and fiancé. Her scene, alone at the end of Act One with the cemetary statue of her employer’s dead wife, would be a show-stopper if it weren’t placed at the end of the act. As the faithful old retainer, or housekeeper in this case, Kirsty Lindstrom, is actress Darcy Pulliam who takes the only real caricature of a person and humanizes her completely, TV-Swedish accent notwithstanding.
Everyone in the company does wonderful work, and that includes the excellent design team of Richard Finklestein on sets and John McLain on lights. The original music by Will Severin would make the film-version of this play proud. All do just the right things for this important new play in the murder mystery genre.
And don’t despair if you thought you were coming to the usual Agatha Christie and there are no bodies lying about. This is still a Christie story. There was a dead body...and there will be one more before you’re done.
◊ 02-04-2007 ◊
Mary Jane Hansen and David Bunce as Mary and Phillip Durant; photo: Tim Raab / Northern Photo
Katie Ann McDermott, Byron Nilsson and John Romeo as Hester Argyle, Andrew Marshall and Superintendent Huish; photo: Tim Raab / Northern Photo
The play, with a single intermission runs two hours and twenty-six minutes. The play continues through February 17. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-274-3256.