Colonial Players' season opener of Agatha Christie's "The Unexpected Guest" begins with several minutes of suspenseful darkness, before a stranger enters the unlit house and shines his flashlight on a woman holding a gun.
The stage lights brighten to reveal the woman's dead husband, and the players are off to another exciting season.
Director Richard Atha-Nicholls also kept his cast in the dark, in a sense, as he did not allow the performers to read the end of the play until just two weeks before opening night. By then, Atha-Nicholls wrote in his director's notes, he had "grown to trust the cast implicitly to make their own creative choices to lead you in the way only Agatha can write."
"I asked the cast to trust me as a director that they would be helped to discover and create their character by not reading the end of the play," he wrote.
Under Atha-Nicholls — directing his first full-length production for CP — Dame Agatha's late 1958 work receives the light touch and expertise required to create gripping theater. The production leads us to what seems the real murderer only to misdirect us into suspecting every other character in the manor house.
Colonial Players' intimate, in-the-round space heightens the apprehension in the beginning darkness. The audience shares the experience of the "unexpected guest" entering a remote house. We discover by flashlight the woman with the gun before the stage brightens to reveal the entire study of former big-game hunter Richard Warwick, lifeless in a chair surrounded by safari souvenirs. As can be expected of Colonial Players, enough safari hunters' trophies were found to adorn the set stylishly, and CP folks found them all only a few short blocks from the theater location at 34 East Street.
When young wife Laura Warwick immediately tells her unknown visitor that she shot her husband, the audience might naturally ask three questions. Why is this stranger here? Why is this woman confessing her crime to him? Why is this stranger willing to help her cover up her crime? Although we might find this opening scene to be less than credible, we seldom expect Christie to offer believability. Nor should we expect multi-dimensional characters who express politically correct opinions.
Instead, in CP's production the audience becomes increasingly involved as tension mounts and we confront several likely suspects who gather in one room, where each in turn may convince us of their guilt.
All cast members have acceptable British accents that endure through the performance. At Sunday's matinee, the most convincing British subject was Atha-Nicholls, himself a native Brit, filling in during a single show for actor John Sheeler, who is cast in the dual roles of Julian Ferrar and Richard Warwick.
Shirley Panek plays the major role of self-confessed husband-killer Laura Warwick, mainly required to be attractive and wear her costumes well. Easily fulfilling that function, Panek's Laura also projects a natural rapport with fellow actors. I have admired Panek in other roles, but found her a bit wooden in her performance on CP's opening weekend.
More demanding is the Uninvited Guest role of Michael Starkwedder that is well played by Jeff Mocho, who somehow makes this character believable and even intriguing. This performance marks stage, film and TV actor Mocho's CP impressive debut role.
Another excellent actor debuting at CP is Jean Berard, crisply playing the ultra-efficient family managing housekeeper, Miss Bennett. Berard's outstanding portrayal creates a memorable, no-nonsense compassionate character.
Mark Allen, who plays Inspector Thomas, is also marking his first CP performance, although he has been seen in Columbia Community Players and Prince George's Little Theatre productions. Allen adds a surprisingly warm element to his character's pragmatism.
Adding needed humor as Sergeant Cadwallader is Justin Trusedale, a recent Frostburg State University graduate who earned a degree in theater and is a gifted and natural comedian.
Ethan Goldberg returns to CP to play the demanding role of mentally challenged Jan Warwick, convincingly transitioning from likable, innocent kid brother to a more assertive, empowered adult character emulating some disturbing qualities of his dead brother.
Elizabeth McWilliams makes an impressive CP debut as Mrs. Warwick, mother of Richard.
Michael Rogers returns to CP to create a fully dimensional portrayal of Richard's efficient, ambitious caregiver, Henry Angell.
"The Unexpected Guest" is the first play of Colonial Players' 63rd season. This means one can currently purchase season subscriptions for the upcoming six plays or single tickets for the current show running through Oct. 8. For information or to order call 410-268-7373 or visit the website at thecolonialplayers.org