Olney Theatre Center begins its 73rd season with an audience favorite, Witness for the Prosecution. The script for Witness for the Prosecution is based on an Agatha Christie short story, by the same name, which was originally published in a British weekly in 1925. The story was later published in several of Christie’s short story collections in Britain, the U.S., and Australia. The play was adapted from the short story, and first premiered in the West End of London on October 28, 1953. Christie wrote the adaptation and lengthened the ending to include the final twist of the show. The play was such a hit that it was brought to the U.S. and produced on Broadway a little over a year later, on December 16, 1954.
The play begins with the meeting of Leonard Vole (Jeffries Thaiss) the accused, Mr. Mayhew (James Slaughter) legal defense counsel, and Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Bob Ari) legal defense barrister. Mr. Vole is brought in by Mr. Mayhew to see if Sir Robarts will take Vole’s defense case. Vole has been accused of murdering an elderly lady, Miss Emily French. He had befriended Mrs. French after a shopping mishap whereupon she had dropped her shopping parcels on a busy street. Like a helpful boy scout, Vole assisted Miss French, and is now sought by the police in connection with the murder. As Vole details his story and answers the legal team’s questions, it becomes apparent that either Vole is extremely open and naive or a very clever murderer. Miss French makes him the sole heir of her estate. Is this motive for murder or the fickle change of mind by a capricious spinster?
The legal team is confounded as to the truth to Vole’s story, and even consults with their Girl Friday, Greta (Carolyn Myers), to get her ‘take’ on Vole. All agree he is a rather “nice”, attractive, and sweet man, who is not all that very worldly or corrupt. Mayhew and Sir Robarts agree to take on the case, with all its circumstantial evidence, as a challenge. The legal defense team learns there are no key witnesses to Vole’s whereabouts for the night of the murder, except for his wife, Romaine (Andrea Cirie) and Miss French’s begrudging housekeeper, Ms. Janet Mackenzie (Monica Lijewski). However, a preparatory interview with Romaine leaves the team questioning Vole’s story. Several trademark Agatha Christie plot twists occur, and you’ll be listening carefully trying to figure out who the murderer is.
This story is the perfect vehicle for an intriguing and clever play. The twists and turns roll out neatly and compactly throughout the course of the play, with tension building right up to the very last few minutes of the production. Director John Going emphasizes the anticipation, and allows his cast to delightfully tease the audience with gentle nuances and innuendo.
And what an excellent and delicious cast it is! Every member elicits a delicate and credible performance. The characters are all rounded and full of personality. Whether you were viewing the banter between the office attendants Greta (Carolyn Myers) and Carter (R. Scott Williams) who gossip as Greta nonchalantly paints her nails; or the blithe recounting of events by the boyish Leonard Vole (Jeffries Thaiss) – whereupon he begins to understand his predicament – each character is portrayed so that we are aware that they are multi-faceted personalities.
The most predictable and perhaps most intriguing character is Romaine Vole (Andrea Cirie). Andrea is able to elicit a duplicitous nature just by her sarcastic responses, glaring looks, and hesitant pronouncements. Such richness!
The courtroom scenes are another source of strong acting that doesn’t overwhelm or butt for individual attention, but melds itself into a portrait of several strong willed and eccentric men. Sir Robarts (Bob Ari) is a larger than life personality accustomed to deference and respect. As he jousts with the “annoying” prosecutor Mr. Myers (Alan Wade) the actors enhance their performances by adding their own foibles and irritations to the milieu. Stereotypical – possibly, but in this case it works! Wade and Ari produce unique and compulsive characters with ‘big personalities’ rather than caricatures! Even the medical examiner Dr. Wyatt (Joe Palka), the chief justice (Jim Scopeletis), and the stubborn, begrudging, and loyal Scottish housekeeper Mrs. Mackenzie (Monica Lijewski) bring their characters to a plausible life. The acting is superb and brings appropriate level of fun, mystery, and seriousness to the performance! Was there a favorite character or scene? No, not for me.
In addition to rich acting and direction, this production of Witness for the Prosecution uses a set design, sound and lighting that immerse you into the legal surroundings of Sir Robart’s office or the ole Bailey. In fact their are set changes that are full of surprise, which elicited applause from the audience. James Wolk (Scenic Designer), Dennis Parichy (Lighting Designer), and Jeffrey Dorfman (Sound Designer) create the effortless surroundings of the 1950’s British Legal system. The environs are realistic and exacting in detail.
Dialect coach Nancy Krebs’ expertise is apparent as the different classes and educational backgrounds are appropriately reflected by the respective British and German characters. Wig Designer Anne Nesmith not only deals with the lady cast members and their changes, but also manages the exacting period wigs of the English barristers and the judge. All of the cast members and the production team, including Costume Designer Liz Covey, used their extensive experience and pedigreed theater background to create a truly wonderful experience for all the senses.
The play occurs in 3 acts with 2 intermissions. You should be prepared to spend a good 3 hours to sit through the entire production, but it will be well worth your time. This is a great whodunit caper and a fun production, to be enjoyed by audiences of all ages.