Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, February 2007
“Nothing is ever settled until it is settled right.” – Rudyard Kipling
The New York State Theatre Institute kicks off 2007 by giving Agatha Christie fans exactly what they have been longing for – the world premiere of a literate new stage adaptation by Mary Jane Hansen of Christie’s 1958 novel Ordeal By Innocence in a typically handsome and professional staging. The company has a stellar reputation for presenting top-notch productions of Christie and other writers of dramatic “Whodunits,” and it was this long history of excellence that earned them the right to be the first to adapt this particular work for the stage.
Ordeal By Innocence which Christie cited in her autobiography as one of her personal favorites, does not feature Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot or any other familiar Christie characters. Nor is there a murder at the start of the play. The plot centers around a crime committed two years earlier when Rachel Argyle was bludgeoned to death with a fireplace poker in her own home, a home that was carefully locked and sealed against intruders. The whole family was there that day, and son Jack, known as Jacko, the black sheep of the family, was convicted of the crime. He has since died in jail and the family is at peace with the past and moving on with their lives, until Dr. Arthur Calgary (Ron Komora) appears in one October afternoon with an airtight alibi for Jacko at the time of Rachel’s murder.
Calgary, a geophysicist just returned home after two years on the Hayes Bentley expedition to the Antarctic, expects his news of Jacko’s innocence to be greeted with joy and relief, but discovers that instead it immediately casts the shadow of guilt over all who were previously considered innocent. What had been settled right is suddenly unsettled.
The Argyle children, now adults, a large and diverse clan created when Rachel, unable to have children of her own, adopted five unwanted children from unhappy homes during the London Blitz, return home to help their father Leo (John McGuire), his long-time secretary and now fiancée Gwenda Vaughn (Yvonne Perry), and the faithful housekeeper Kirsty Lindstrom (Darcy Pulliam) deal with the news. Each has her or his own feelings about their adoptive parents and siblings. Mary (Mary Jane Hansen), the eldest, is now married to Philip Durrant (David Bunce) who is wheelchair bound after a bout of Polio. Hester (Katie Ann McDermott) has returned home to Sunny Point after a failed attempt at a stage career and is now all but engaged to the safe and dull Dr. Don Craig (David Baecker). Tina (Shannon Rafferty) is a mousy librarian in a nearby village, and Micky (David Girard), is also living close to home and working as an auto mechanic. They return to the scene of the crime to help local police Superintendent Huish (John Romeo) and Major Finney (David Beditz) discover who really killed Rachel.
“Oh, justice! It’s not the guilty who matter. It is the innocent.” Hester Argyle cries at the end of Dr. Calgary’s initial revelation of Jacko's innocence.
Believing strongly that “one must take responsibility for one’s actions and the results of one’s actions,” Calgary makes inquiries of his own, meeting up with Jacko’s ex-wife (Katie Hetteshceimer) and her current husband (Eric Rose), an older woman (Carole Edie Smith) who fell victim to Jacko’s wiles, and the Argyle family doctor, Dr. McMaster (Joel Aroeste). Many of these encounters take place at local restaurant where Calgary patiently signs the check for the same faithful waiter (Sam Long) after every scene.
Red herrings abound in this tense drama as the spotlight of suspicion is, sometimes quite literally, shifted from one member of the household to the next. I was actually quite disappointed when the murderer finally confessed because I had so enjoyed the intellectual puzzle presented by Hansen’s taut script and Elizabeth Swain’s precise direction. Quite a few sweet romances play out in the course of the drama as well, and the final scenes wrap up some of those stories. Hansen has done an excellent job of bringing Christie’s complex and tormented characters to life in a script that moves briskly while still retaining what I assume are Christie’s own quite deep ponderings on the questions of guilt and innocence, justice and injustice. The Kipling quotation which opens this review is just one example Christie gives of great writings on the subject. The Magna Carta and the Book of Job are also quoted in the course of the play.
NYSTI acquired the rights to Ordeal By Innocence and created this production in a four-year-long collaboration with Mathew Prichard, Dame Agatha’s only grandson, Agatha Christie Ltd, and Samuel French. I don’t know about you, but I very much enjoy being able to attend a world premiere of a new work, seeing its talented adapter up on stage amidst a fine cast, and being provided with so much interesting information about its genesis. It makes me feel as if I am a small part of the creative process that will undoubtedly eventually bring this play to audiences around the world. What fun!
Just looking over the cast list I knew that this would be a fine show because these actors, many of the NYSTI regulars, can all be counted on to deliver captivating and professional performances. Everyone is excellent, but I particularly enjoyed the work of Komora, Girard, McDermott, Hansen, and Romeo in their pivotal roles. NYSTI has built a real company over its 31 years of operation, and it is always fun to watch actors display diverse aspects of their art through different roles over the course of the season.
“The best way to approach Christie is to be as faithful as you can,” Hansen states in the Study Guide for the show, “but there were many more locations in the novel than could be represented in a play. In general I had to condense 279 pages of the novel into 90 pages for the play.”
Unlike the plays Christie wrote herself, which generally take place in the drawing room, Swain, Hansen, set designer Richard Finkelstein and lighting designer John McLain have created a single set that allows the action to take place in multiple locations, both indoors and outdoors. The bulk of the stage is taken up by a handsome two-story set representing the study, staircase, and an upstairs bedroom at Sunny Point. The mansion’s front door is also represented, as is Rachel’s tomb on the grounds of the estate. The far corners of the stage contain Superintendent Huish’s office at the police station, and the aforementioned restaurant where Dr. Calgary meets up with the people he questions.
McLain uses his lighting to direct the audience’s attention not just to the appropriate area of the stage, but often directly on to a specific person in a crowd so that we get not just verbal but visual cues about each character’s feelings during the course of the play.
I have only one quibble with this excellent production, and that is a technical one. I was bothered by a loud electronic buzzing noise for a long while in to the first act after the introductory music was played. In addition, early on the actors sounded like they were shouting (maybe trying to be heard over the buzzing?), and then they seemed to be speaking much too quickly in their only slightly painful faux British accents. A sanity check with my companions assured me that I was not having auditory hallucinations. After a bit everything settled down and the buzz faded from interest as the mystery gained momentum. I imagine everyone will have the same trouble adjusting to the accents at first, but I hope that the buzzing can be quickly cured.
The New York State Theatre Institute presentation of Ordeal By Innocence runs through February 17 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, off of Division St. between Front and First Streets in Troy, New York. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. It is not too scary, but it is quite wordy and requires attention to detail, so I wouldn't bring children under 10. Call the box office at 518-274-3256 between 9-4 p.m. for tickets and information. (If you are calling within the hour before show time the box office number is 518-244-6888.)
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007