Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is a fun sleuth in Cortland Rep’s A Murder is Announced
By James MacKillop
The same, only different. Audiences love Agatha Christie mysteries for their branded reliability, the predictable unpredictability. We must start with an assortment of flawed characters, some of whom should be annoying, in a confined country setting. Most of the prominent hints as to the identity of the killer are expected to be false, except that one of them is both genuine and significant. The author never signals which it is.
What keeps Christie lively on the stage, as evidenced by Cortland Repertory Theatre’s current production of A Murder is Announced, is that directors know that the formula is not a strait-jacket and that audiences like to be surprised by characterizations as much as to find out, at the end, who done it.
For example, take Miss Marple, the spinster sleuth who had been around more than 20 years by the time Christie published A Murder is Announced as a novel in 1950. Christie repeatedly describes her as “tweedy and birdlike,” not at all the flashy show-off that Sherlock Holmes was or Hercule Poirot would become. In both the novel and Leslie Darbon’s 1977 stage adaptation, Miss Marple’s entrance comes late in the action. Under Jim Bumgarner’s thoughtful direction the graying, very thin Carol Burns who plays Miss Marple speaks in the softest voice of any player in the company. At first we hardly notice her, a person without wealth, connections or influence. What Burns’ Marple does is listen while others think only of themselves or pay insufficient attention to what is being said.
By returning to the original material, Bumgarner and Burns confound our expectations and displace all the previous Marples. Most of us think first of plump Margaret Rutherford or the sleek Angela Lansbury in the role, both with their own agendas. Rutherford was a top comedienne, the original Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Lansbury started out as a blonde dazzler and matured into one of America’s most beloved British imports. Burns’ spotlightavoiding Marple cedes many good lines to the harried lawman, Inspector Craddock (Kyle Kennedy), a pleasant inversion of cliché, and nudges the killer toward self-revelation. Not at all what we expected going in.
The “announced” murder of the title comes from a notice in the small-town newspaper of bland, tidy Chipping Cleghorn. Where one might have read of an engagement to be married or an awards banquet, there is a black-and-white prediction of a murder to take place on the of Friday the 13th at 6:30 p.m. in a well-appointed house known as Little Paddocks. Guests are drawn from near and far, and then before them all a blackclad intruder rushes in. The lights go off.
Shots are fired, piercing the ear lobe of the elegant hostess, Letitia Blacklock (Mary Williams). When the lights go back on the intruder is sprawled on the floor, bumped off right on schedule. Unlike, say, Ten Little Indians or The Mousetrap, the plot wheels start early and suddenly. So the question is not just who done it, but why did the killer want everyone else in the house to be there to witness what is in effect an execution?
The number of characters in the novel was cut by six for the stage, but we still have to absorb a mound of information about who’s who and who disparages whom. Adapter Darbon moves this along by having characters speak about absent persons, often disapprovingly and unkind ly.
At the same time, the story’s origins on the printed page mean that entrances and exits do not always make great sense, and there are a few scenes in the first act where subordinate people appear stranded because they lack an excuse to go do something else.
Contrasts define. Hostess Letitia always wears black, and it’s too fancy to be basic, along with a double string of pearls. She’s confident and graceful, unruffled when grazed during the murder. Much applauded in last summer’s Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, Mary Williams as Letitia inspires confidence.
Just the opposite is Letitia’s somewhat older friend, the flibbertigibbet Dora Bunner (Rebecca McGraw), who is still called “Bunny” in advanced years. The implications of her childlike nickname are underscored with her birthday party (one candle), lavished with rare chocolate, hard to find in post-World War II rationing and deprivation.
Indeed, the dislocations from the war, then five years past, become almost an offstage character affecting people’s lives and how they see themselves. That’s why the lovely blonde Phillipa Haymes (Sarah Van Fossen) is reduced to being a border with Letitia at Chipping Cleghorn. Thus we also have the appearance of the sisterbrother team of chic but cold Julia Simmons (Jennifer Holcombe) and her charming if spoiled brother Patrick (Shawn Smith). The economy has also driven away the usual old servants who have been replaced by refugees. The spicy Hungarian Mitzi (Renee Reineke), free from any English deference to the privileged classes, is a champion of garlic but also supplies unfailing comic relief.
A second layer of comedy arises from the self-celebrating, would-be writer Edmund Swettenham (Joseph DePietro) and his matronly, Wagnerian mother (Nancy Kane). Edmund has much to say about Agatha Christie’s profession, even though he gives no evidence of having hammered out a single word.
Elements of the plot emerge from the dialogue early on and concern distant offstage relatives, another sign that Murder originated as a novel where it’s easier to keep cousins and aunts straight. A great sum of money is about to be inherited, possibly by Letitia unless a mysterious niece and nephew can be found.
Enter the law in the persons of the all-business Inspector Craddock (Kyle Kennedy) and his well-groomed assistant, Sergeant Mellors (Evan Montgomery). Short, stocky and balding, Kennedy can easily play a comic figure, which invites characters and the audience to underestimate him. He’s also delightfully unconventional: not the man from central casting. Kennedy, head of the acting department at Middle Tennessee State, turns Craddock into an intelligent copper who comes prepared to get the job done. Bit by bit, false fronts begin to crumble. Only the prize eludes him, which is when observant Miss Marple leads to the exposure of the grand imposter and murderer.
Jared Rutherford’s tasteful set, well lighted by Shawn Boyle, demonstrates Cortland Repertory’s high production standards and will warm the Anglophile heart found in many audiences. Jimmy Johansmeyer’s costumes wrap around characters that could have been found in early 1950s fashion magazines. Trouble is, those were desperate years in Britain, when grasping people sought murder to help pay the bills. z This production runs through Saturday, Aug. 13. See Times Table for information.