The Old Academy Players production of "And Then There Were None" by Agatha Christie holds you in suspense for two hours.
The Old Academy Players production of "And Then There Were None" by Agatha Christie holds you in suspense for two hours. Inspired by the progression of murders in a popular nursery rhyme, a mastermind killer systematically slays 10 people.
It is a fiendishly crafted mystery thriller. A mysterious Mr. Owens invites 10 guests to a weekend at Soldier Rock, a remote island off the rugged coast of Devon in southwest England. A hidden gramophone soon startles them, blaring that everyone who came to Soldier Rock will account for their crimes.
In playing the record, Butler Rogers protests he only followed the written instructions of his new boss, Mr. Owens. (He assumed it was music). The guests put their heads together. They quickly realize no one has actually met Mr. Owens, and duplicitous letters conned everyone into making the sea journey.
Then, one by one, little soldiers disappear from the mantelpiece. The guests reckon the first death a suicide, and the second death evidence that Mr. Owens lurks on the island. The third death leads them to search the island and arrive at the true verdict: "Mr. Owens" is one of the seven remaining guests.
Christie imbues her mystery with a grim view of humankind. Guests only differ in the way they are flawed — guilty of crimes or indignant and self-righteous, amoral, self-indulgent, and deceptive. While some guests invite sympathy, none are estimable. "Mr. Owens" puts human nature on trial.
The horror of their isolation prods General Mackenzie (Norman Burnosky), Dr. Armstrong (Michael Tarringer), and Vera Claythorne (Rachel Dalton) into musing regret. All three actors captivate you with terror-induced monologues. Two tell the truth, but one guest, we later learn, continues to dissemble.
Director Nancy Ridgeway's show is atmospheric. She enhances these soliloquies with dramatic lighting (Lighting Design by Taylor Ridgeway). Through the rear French windows, you glimpse a roiling ocean and hear seagulls and foghorns, a vision of wild freedom that contrasts keenly with the imprisonment of the well-appointed drawing room.
Justice Lawrence Wargrave (John Pinto) moralistically bristles at the gramophone's "hanging judge" accusation. Likewise, Bible-toting Emily Brent (Lorraine Barrett) is self-righteous about turning her pregnant 17-year-old servant into the streets. She feels no scrap of guilt over the maid's subsequent suicide, and you feel oddly caught between amusement and anger — in a way trapped, just like the guests.
The other guests include Philip Lombard (Daniel McDevitt), a Soldier of Fortune, accused of deliberately killing 31 African tribesmen. Anthony Marston (Eric Tuller) killed two people via drunk driving. Both are happily amoral about their misdeeds.
William Blore (Brian Balduzzi) is a corrupt ex-police officer who delights in pretending to be someone he is not. Gramophone-Owens accuses Mr. and Mrs. Roger of murdering an elderly woman to steal her money. You suspect this pair have a "sick relationship". Are there any "good" people here?
The short answer is no, and thanks to costumes by Helga Krauss and Samantha Simpson, guests are vividly individual in their frailty. Choreographer Dustin Karrat underscores escalating panic in the aftermath of murders, helping to make the group dynamics in Christie's fantastical script so believable.
And then there was Agatha
"And Then There Were None" is one of just a handful of books to have sold over 100 million copies. Christie published the novel in 1939, later calling it the most difficult book she ever wrote. She adapted it for theater in 1943. It differs from most of her works because it lacks an investigating detective like Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot.
The mystery is solved only because the mastermind killer is the only one left alive until he, too, kills himself. In the novel, we only learn the villain's identity via postscript. The killer leaves behind a confession manuscript in a corked bottle. (Along with all else, Christie grasped the serial killer's pathetic need to be recognized for cleverness.)
The postscript is a nihilistic apologia in which the killer articulates his contempt for humankind, yet engenders a measure of sympathy because of sincere concerns about justice. Fearing the novel too grim for a theater audience, Christie changed the ending so that the killer reveals himself to the final victim.
Stripped of a well-thought justification, the tone of "And Then There Were None" changes into something more palatable to moral sensibility. And in the Old Academy production, the actor portrays the villain so brilliantly the killer is exposed as an egoistic psychopathic killer, and nothing more.
Old Academy Players is at 3544 Indian Queen Lane. "And Then There Were None" will run through Jan. 28. Tickets are available at 215-843-1109.