Monday, October 03, 2011

The Verdict is in on 'Witness For The Prosecution'




As is the case in most of Agatha Christie’s works, Witness For The Prosecution, currently being staged at the Olney Theatre Center, is another deliciously fascinating whodunit. The three-act play has more twists and turns than a plumber’s snake.

British born Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, and along with William Shakespeare, the best-selling author of any type. Christie penned The Witness For The Prosecution as a short story in 1925. It was published in the U.K. in 1933 and then appeared in the U.S. in 1948 as part of the collection The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories.

Based on the short story, Witness For The Prosecution premiered as a play in London in October 1953. Its success motivated the production to be brought to Broadway’s Henry Miller Theatre in December 1954 and closed in June 1956 after 645 performances.

It was created into a film in 1958 starring Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich and later adapted into a television film by Hallmark Hall of Fame.

Set in 1952 London, the play centers on Leonard Vole (played by Jeffries Thaiss), a married unemployed charmer who was arrested for the sensational murder of wealthy 62 year-old widow Emily French whom he had befriended. Vole made periodic visits to Mrs. French, helping her deal with her loneliness and with her tax matters—much to the chagrin of her live-in housekeeper Janet Mackenzie (Monica Lijewski).

Mackenzie had told police that Vole, a much younger man, was in the company of Mrs. French right before the murder. She was the person who discovered her body. Adding another reason to suspect Vole was the fact that Mrs. French named the virtually financially broke Vole in her will as the sole heir; therefore, he stood to gain the most from her demise.

Vole’s wife, Romaine (Andrea Cirie), an enigmatic German actress, first informed Vole’s defense team, Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Bob Ari) and Mr. Mayhew (James Slaughter) that she would provide the critical alibi, although these erudite attorneys received an odd and inexplicable vibe from her. But when the trial proceeded, Romaine reversed course and became a witness for the prosecution. She testified that Vole was not home during the time the victim was deemed to have been killed.

What then transpired was a wild ride through the dramatic intensity of trial testimony and cross-examination coupled with a fascinating guessing game regarding the guilt or innocence of Vole. That which appears as obvious isn’t—the true core of Agatha Christie’s genius. The climactic ending was a shocking twist upon a twist and will not be revealed here.

Veteran director John Going, a regular at Olney (The Mousetrap, Doubt, and I Am My Own Wife among the 30 he helmed) and a four-time Helen Hayes Award nominee, deftly guided the actors (and the audience) though the plot’s labyrinths. The British dialect throughout was clear, precise and well-timed and the actors’ movements on the stage were crisp and purposeful.

While I was hoping that the passionate Leonard Vole was innocent, Thaiss didn’t present Vole as a sympathetic character who may have been wrongly accused of the crime. Charming, maybe, but likeable, not so much.

Andrea Cirie seemed to relish the role of the cunning, duplicitous and mysterious Romaine. She is the catalyst that makes the plot work, and Cirie, who has significant Shakespeare background as well as TV appearances, played her character to the hilt.

The best of the best were Bob Ari (Frost/Nixon, Bells Are Ringing, Laughter On The 23rd Floor on Broadway) as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, the trial counsel, and James Slaughter as Mr. Mayhew, his associate.

Ari, in particular, was a standout as the esteemed lawyer. The characters they portrayed were credible and fun in trying to discredit the mounting circumstantial evidence and the calculating Romaine. Although I wasn’t moved to get behind Vole in his quest to be exonerated, I easily felt connected to Robarts and to some extent, Mayhew.

The remainder of the cast performed admirably, and some added a dose of comic relief to break the tension. Most notable was Justice Wainwright played mischievously by Jim Scopeletis, a multiple Helen Hayes Award winner.

James Wolk, the Scenic Designer, warrants major kudos. The staging had two sets—Robarts’ chambers (office) and the courtroom. Both were excellent in their design, which authentically and meticulously reflected the décor from the period.

Olney’s presentation of Witness For The Prosecution benefitted from a great story, expert direction, solid acting performances, a superb set, good British costuming including trial wigs, and the other ingredients needed for an outstanding play.

Olney’s Main Stage audience delivered its verdict with a justifiable standing ovation at the conclusion.

Witness for the Prosecution is running at Olney Theater Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Springs Rd., Olney, MD 20832 through October 23. For tickets and information call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.

Photo: Bob Ari as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, James Slaughter as Mr. Mayhaw and Jeffries Thaiss as Leonard Vole

Credit: Stan Barouh

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