Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Millbrook: "Witness for the Prosecution"

Witness for the Prosecution, Agatha Christie's 1925 short story that was turned into a play and later a film, has a legion of faithful fans, and surprisingly [based on the Millbrook Community Players' opening night audience's reaction] several who did not already know its surprise ending -- one that won't be spoiled here.

Essentially a courtroom drama replete with circumstantial evidence, suggestions of both innocence and guilt, questionable testimony, and plenty of red herrings to throw us off the track, it tells the story of Leonard Vole [Daniel Harms], a man accused of murdering a wealthy spinster in 1950s London in order to inherit her substantial estate.

Vole retains celebrated solicitor Sir Wilfrid [John Chain] and Mrs. Mayhew [Martha Ann Henry -- the most natural and convincing member of this acting ensemble]; together, and despite some misgivings, they piece together the evidence in this two-and-a-half-hour production.

Director Dean Kelly has assembled a cast of veteran and neophyte actors, and follows Christie's deliberately slow pace and old-fashioned structure to gradually reveal plot and character, so audiences must pay strict attention to minute and seemingly insignificant details.

While the courtroom sequences show Sir Wilfrid's and prosecution lawyer Myers' [Clifton Kelly] interrogation abilities as a test of wits, the challenge is to make the lengthy exposition preceding it dramatically interesting while the physical action is relatively static. -- And the actors here seemed tentative in delivering their lines: slow speech and long pauses diminished the conviction and authority of much of the dialogue.

Once the testimony begins, however, the audience interest is sustained by the persistence of the lawyers and the conflicting evidence provided. -- In an unexpected move, Vole's wife Romaine [Rachael Pike in a complex role] is called on as the titular "witness for the prosecution" instead of for his defense where her testimony might have been suspect. And, as her ambiguous responses contradict Vole's version of the events surrounding the woman's death, the truth must be discovered.

Mr. Harms brings significant naivete to the character of Vole, making his guilt or innocence a matter of audience choice, and Ms. Pike's aloofness as Romaine make her motives immediately suspect. So, it is up to Mr. Chain's Sir Wilfrid to plow through the maze of testimony with a deliberateness of purpose to discover the truth.

Of course, we are challenged along with the characters in the play to sift through the testimony and seek the truth without being prejudiced by appearances. That is Christie's major strength, and the Millbrook Community Players deliver the goods.