Tom Tansey and Leah O’Hara spar in a dramatic courtroom scene in “Witness for the Prosecution,” the suspenseful Agatha Christie murder mystery now playing at Stagecrafters through Dec. 8. (Photo by Joanne Davis)

by Hugh Hunter

In past years, I have seen the movie version of “Witness for the Prosecution” with Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton, read the book and attended theater revivals. Despite such familiarity, I was surprised how well Agatha Christie’s classic suspense story, now running at Stagecrafters, could still hold my attention. (The play opened in London on October 28, 1953, at the Winter Garden Theatre in London.)

Young Leonard Vole (Mark Sherlock) stands accused of murdering a 56-year old woman in order to gain control of her estate. Protesting his innocence, Vole seeks the help of Solicitor John Mayhew, (Ross Druker) and Defense Attorney Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Tom Tansey).The set is difficult, switching between Robarts’ private chambers and the court room where Vole faces trial. Under director Yaga Brady, this production conceals the court room behind a rear wall drapery to execute seamless scene changes (designers Yaga Brady, Richard Stewart and Marie Laster).

Part of the charm of “Witness” is its humor, unusual in a courtroom thriller. You feel the prominence of class and station in this English world. Feisty Scottish housemaid Janet McKenzie, (Susan Mattson) and Robarts’ typist Greta, (Jaime Roanne Schwartz) light up the stage. Prosecuting attorney Mr. Myers (Tom Libonate) has some funny moments and John Pinto does delightful double duty as the comical eccentrics Judge Wainwright and Carter, Robarts’ chief clerk.

The enduring interest of “Witness” is a tribute to the writer’s skill. Suspense stories are full of unexpected turns, but those of Christie flow from character revelations; her plot twists feel unforced, true to life. Mark Sherlock is engaging as the accused. When we first meet him, you are struck by his boyish insouciance. In court, Vole is alarmed when evidence weighs against him, leaning over the bar with a mix of surprise, fear and fascination.

But no production of “Witness” can succeed without a strong performance in the role of Romaine, Leonard’s wife. Leah O’Hara is up to the challenge. Her Romaine is commanding, disdainfully aware of her surroundings. Sporting a German-inflected English, she flashes charming, Old World hauteur in the way she dismisses both questions and questioners.

The innocence of Leonard Vole is the courtroom issue, but the real battle is between Romaine and Vole’s defense attorney Robarts. Tom Tansey is convincing as a lawyer who not only wants to win his case but is more broadly interested in the ethics of the English legal system. How well will such interests hold up against a continental woman with passionate and conflicting values?

Actually, not very well. The story reminds you of Christie’s own suffering when she disappeared in 1926, sparking a nation-wide police hunt. (They found her living in a hotel under the name of her husband’s mistress.) It is hard to watch “Witness” and not see Christie pouring a lot of herself into Romaine’s torment 30 years later.

Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “Witness for the Prosecution” will run through Dec 8. Tickets at TheStagecrafters.org or 215-247-8881.

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