Followers of English murder mystery author Agatha Christie know the formula, and it works. A murder is committed; there’s a group of suspects in attendance; one of them, perhaps more, but usually the one, is the killer. And it’s up to a certain, colorful character – a detective inspector, a private detective, or maybe an eccentric amateur sleuth – to sort through the details, develop a theory, then gather the potential criminals into one room. After a lengthy explanation, where secrets and surprises are unveiled, the criminal is finally exposed. That’s the mechanism, and there’s comfort in knowing the device, which is why the 1958 play Verdict, Miss Christie’s last, is so unusual.
Less a whodunit, or even a whydunit, Verdict is more a melodrama; a study in principles – ideas of what constitutes morality, ethical standards, and what, in the end, is the right thing to do. In the first act, when Professor Karl Hendryk (Peter Cunniff) discovers that one of his promising students, Lester (Jackson Ramler) stole an expensive text book and sold it in order to take a girl on a date, instead of admonishing the young man, the professor tells him, “If you have to do bad things, I’m glad you do them for a good motive.” It’s a theme that carries into the second act, but with consequences far more reaching than the elderly professor could ever imagine.
There is a murder, and its discovery ends Act One, but unlike the regular path of an Agatha Christie plot, there are major differences in the telling, which might help explain why, back in ‘58, the play closed earlier than expected. Audiences used to a certain style were thrown off-track by Verdict’s construction. For one thing, the crime is witnessed. Second; the murderer is seen. By knowing whodunit and why it was done, there’s no mystery. Instead, what follows is a clash of ideals, personal rationales, and decisions made for what is considered to be the greater good, no matter how misguided those decisions might be.
Though no specific time is ever mentioned, the action appears to take place during the late fifties in the small, somewhat cramped, book-laden living-room of Professor Hendryk’s London flat. It’s all his salary can afford. The professor, his invalid wife, Anya (director Virginia Olivieri, here doubling in duties), and Anya’s likable cousin, Lisa (Carrie Ellen Jones) have escaped persecution experienced in their continental European homeland, never named, and moved to England for safety.
The professor teaches at a London university, but often helps students further their education at his home. One of his students, the attractive though less than empathetic Helen Rollander (Bella Tindall) desires private lessons, though clearly her motives of wanting to be alone with the kindly professor have little to do with furthering her education, and she makes no attempt to hide it. When it comes to the subject of the wheelchair-bound wife, Helen shows no concern; she practically throws herself at the professor. “I don’t pity anybody,” she states. “I can’t help it. I’m just made that way.”
Other characters include Dr. Stoner (J.Kevin Tallent), the practitioner who not only makes house calls but has become a friend to the family; the chatty, cockney busybody family help, Mrs Roper (CJ Boston),and Helen’s wealthy father, Sir William Rollander (Charles Sowder), a man willing to pay whatever price the professor demands in order to please his daughter. It will take the play close to an hour before a crime is committed, but one of the above will kill and another will be killed. It’s how the situation is handled in the second act that builds the tension.
Though these characters are in a British setting, the decision was made for the majority of players to forego anything sounding locally English. For most, hearing American accents in an upscale Bloomsbury flat will be of little consequence and may not even raise an eyebrow, which is why Mrs. Roper’s East End cockney sounds all the more jarring and oddly out of place. CJ Boston, who plays the light-fingered housekeeper, isn’t helped by Agatha Christie’s dialog which bares little resemblance to how an authentic Mrs. Roper would ever speak. Born into a wealthy, upper English family, as a writer, Miss Christie was fine with dialog for characters of her class – the lords, ladies, and the professionals of an educated and affluent English society – but everyone outside of that realm usually fell into stereotypes, including the working class. It’s not necessarily the actor’s fault that she sounds more a fifties Hollywood movie version of a working Londoner than someone who might actually come from Lambeth. In this respect, the crime is mostly Miss Christie’s.
While its themes of morality and the complexities of the human condition will always be timeless, there’s a dated feel to Agatha Christie’s script that is hard to overcome, particularly in a stodgy first half. It’s not that the play is uninspired – interest in what might happen next never wanes – but its old-fashioned manner of slowly, really slowly, building up to something isn’t helped by an atmosphere lacking in appropriate pacing; it’s as if the world is moving in slo-mo and all the characters are in need of a kick start. It’s only when the bitter and debilitated character of Anya displays a moment of anger and has to be calmed that any sign of life is witnessed.
The second half is a different. By then, the crime is committed, emotions rise, and the leaden pacing of the first half suddenly increases to something quite distinct. At this point, Verdict’s Act Two engages in a way the first act doesn’t. There’s even a moment of genuine surprise concluding Scene 2 that should elicits gasps from the audience.
Continuing until March 4 at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre’s new home – it’s the spot where the multiple screens of a Harkins Movie Theater used to occupy in the Scottsdale Fashion Square, now nicely remodeled for live theatre – Verdict’s design and presentation benefits enormously because of its new location. With comfortable stadium seating and an overall professional appearance, by default, there’s less of a rough-around-the edges, low budget appearance to the production that audiences might have experienced in its previous Actor’s Cafe home. This is certainly a major plus; it helps elevate the Desert Stages theatre-going experience to a new and welcome level.
As long as Agatha Christie fans know going in that Verdict’s construct is not business as usual, what disappointed audiences at London’s Strand Theatre in ‘58 should entertain Scottsdale Desert Stage Theatre audiences today. Despite much of the above-mentioned issues, including Dr. Stoner’s ponytail that would never be accepted in Bloomsbury’s upscale society, or the laughably shapeless police uniform of Jackson Ramler’s Sergeant Pearce, who looks more like a character out of a child’s pantomime than an authentic British Bobby, overall, Verdict remains satisfying. Lessen the pauses, tighten the delivery, and up the energy of the first half, and things should work even better.
Pictures Courtesy of Renee Ashlock
Verdict continues at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre until March 4