A lot of people love Billy Wilder's 1957 movie version of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution, if only for the chance to see Marlene Dietrich hag it up as the mysterious crone who delivers incriminating letters to a murder defendant's attorney. Her dual role gave away the film's most stupendous surprise, something that I'm not going to do here. The Richardson Theatre Centre has found a simpler but more conscientious form of camouflage in an effort to maintain the mystery as long as possible, and it's far friendlier to audiences who love a hairpin plot turn and also happen to be unfamiliar with Christie's courtroom nail-biter. And even for those of us who know it well, the results at a recent Saturday-night performance were as entertainingly rendered as a late-night dalliance with American Movie Classics.
Capitalizing on the aristocratic Southern decadence most recently updated in John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, director Rachael Lindley and her actors have transplanted Christie's play to Savannah, Georgia. The details of the plot--dashing young man who may have wooed and then bludgeoned a rich widow for her money, European wife despised as an outsider by the community--mesh very well with the new locale, as do the actors' Georgia drawls, which step right up to exaggerated but never fall in. I wish that were true of a couple of the performances--more on that later--but all the key players acquit themselves with sincerity and a brisk professionalism that keeps this much-sampled 50-year-old thriller skipping along playfully.
Jay Bingham plays Leonard Vole, a charmer of scant material means who has a German wife named Romaine (Lise Alexander). She is his only alibi on the night of the murder of an older rich woman with whom he'd become "friends"; their association was important enough, in her mind, to change the will and bequeath her estate to him. But Romaine abruptly switches, inexplicably becoming a witness not for defense attorney Wilfrid Robarts (Michael Rapp), but for the case of prosecutor Constance Myers (Kelly Lawrence, stepping into a role originally written for a man). What unfolds has proven to be the template for courtroom suspense in theaters, in the movies, and on television.
Any revival of Witness for the Prosecution benefits from carefully controlled hamminess within the confines of firm characterizations--theater folks have to give audiences something to savor, a reason to care again about Christie's canonical stage thriller. Richardson Theatre Centre makes sure that we do, but two actors forgo discipline to give irritating performances that jar with the otherwise effective ensemble. Jennifer Luckett has been asked to turn an incidental role--Greta, the defense attorney's typist--into a bespectacled, leering, man-hungry caricature, and she works those affectations way too hard for the blessedly brief moments she's onstage. Jonette Dalfonzo as Mrs. MacKenzie, the stout housekeeper of the murdered woman, isn't nearly so annoying, but she has an imperiousness--a royal contempt--that's a couple of notches louder on the volume knob than the others. Greta the typist is simply misconceived; with a little more diligent direction, Mrs. MacKenzie the housekeeper would fall into proper place yet still have the chance to give a memorable character performance.
Of course, Agatha Christie had more on her plate than just the melodrama of a murder trial; if and when the big surprise of Witness for the Prosecution works, it hinges on the jury's (that is, the audience's) xenophobia--specifically, the suspicion of and distaste for Germans, which, needless to say, was pretty high in 1953, when this play was first produced in London. That the suspected foreigner attempts to use this prejudice to her advantage and protect the guy who looks and talks just like you and me was Christie's frisky little take on the dangerous assumptions of tribal identity.
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