The spirit of one of the world’s best-loved mystery crime writers returns to Laurel Mill Playhouse in a lovely rendition of Dame Agathe Christie’s “Spider’s Web” in time for Halloween.
Written for Margaret Lockwood, a 20th-century British film star, the comedy thriller premiered in London more than 60 years ago. Second only to “The Mousetrap” (which ran at the Playhouse four years ago), “Spider’s Web” is one of Christie’s most successful plays.
Produced by Maureen Rogers and beautifully directed by returning director Daniel Johnston, the whodunnit easily transports a spot of Main Street to the County of Kent in southeast England.
The plot, of course, surrounds a murder that happens in Act 1 that must be solved by play’s end.
And Christie’s script, of course, delivers escalating tension and laughter in equal measure as the audience is drawn through a vivid web woven with contrivances such as a secret doorway and hidden desk drawer.
Some fans will recognize recycled plot devices from earlier tales — rent too cheap to be believed, a rare stamp, a young girl tinkering with witchcraft and a missing ace of spades — all will appreciate the troupe’s authentic accents coached by Sierra Young.
For if it isn’t believably British, it isn’t vintage Agathe Christie.
As the lights rise on a classy set designed by Jen Sizer and Johnston, painted in rich shades of brown and tan, the intimate stage appears larger than usual; furniture placement and new LED stage lights add visual depth.
A well-appointed bookcase, wood accents and details such as tabletop statues look at home in the drawing room of Clarissa (played by Sarah Robinson) — the attractive, fun-loving young wife of diplomat Henry Hailsham-Brown (Patrick Pase).
Clarissa is currently entertaining three houseguests — Dame Rowland Delahaye (Sam David), Jeremy Warrender (Rocky Nunzio) and Hugo Birch (Brock Brown). Henry’s daughter, Pippa (Shayna Bloom) is also in residence.
Enter the eccentric gardener, Mildred Peake (Maia Krapcho) and the requisite butler, Elgin (Nik Henle) and an unsolicited visit from the creepy Oliver Costello (Terri Laurino) sets the scene for murder.
Johnston has cast Rowland Delahaye as a woman and females to play Costello and Constable Jones as men. Costello (Laurino) and Jones’ (Sizer’s) makeup and acting are so convincing that audience members may not even realize they’re female, which is rare to find in community theater.
Across the board, Marge McGugan’s costume design fits the time and space like a glove, as do Chris Sisson’s original music and sound effects and Sizer’s lighting design.
As Lady Clarissa, Robinson is charming and clever as the young wife who likes to amuse herself by foretelling how she’d react in suspenseful situations.
After fantasizing about finding a dead body in her drawing room, Clarissa is well-prepared to lie to shield someone when it actually happens, even though she quips in Act 2 that she “never realized what a terrible amount of explaining one has to do in a murder.”
Robinson and Pase, as Henry, create sweet chemistry as the unlikely married couple who are genuinely in love.
As Delahaye, David protects Clarissa (who is her ward) fiercely. With nerves of steel, she faces down the formidable Inspector Lord (Steve Bruun) and eventually helps him unravel the mystery.
Bruun also delivers a consistently fine performance as Inspector Lord.
Nunzio’s skulking about as Jeremy is highly entertaining. He claims to be in love with Clarissa, but his expressions hint that there is much more going on behind those darting eyes.
Brown seems guileless as Hugo and delivers a smooth performance, as does Henle as the impassive butler who dislikes the gardener played by Krapcho.
As Peake, Krapcho bubbles with boisterous energy and comic relief. There is never a dull moment when she’s on stage (or any other time during this well put together, ensemble show).
Although Bloom as Pippa appears to be playing her character younger than 14 (Christie intended the role for Lockwood’s daughter), she easily arouses protective instincts with crazy pigtails and a vivacious stage presence.
Supporting actress Elizabeth Feurerbach makes a brief, believable appearance as the Doctor.
Fresh and crisp as an autumn eve, “Spider’s Web” hits a high bar at Laurel Mill Playhouse in a beautifully directed and performed show that should make the dame and her fans proud.
“Spider’s Web” continues through Sunday, Nov. 4, Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St., with Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m.; and matinee performances Oct. 28 and Nov. 4 at 2 p.m. General admission is $20; students 12 and under and seniors 65 and over, $15. For tickets, go to laurelmillplayhouse.org.