By Dale King
Soon after summer departed South Florida, a strange sensation of mystery enveloped the area of Delray Beach at the far end of Lake Ida, in the vicinity of the Delray Beach Playhouse.
It doesn’t take a Miss Marple, a Hercule Poirot or even a Sherlock Holmes to realize this sensation must be emanating from the showplace itself, where the 2018-2019 season opened Oct. 5 with a three-week production of Agatha Christie’s A Murder Is Announced.
The novel which begat the play adapted by Leslie Danbon, features the aforementioned Miss Marple, the author’s normally nosy and always curious detective. The book was heavily promoted upon its publication in 1950 as being Christie’s 50th whodunit, so it’s considered something of a classic. Still, it’s just a bit wordy and slow moving.
Director Randolph DelLago has tapped some performers new to DBP, but adept at playing their roles. There are still familiar faces on the main stage – among them, Charlotte Sherman, who has contributed to DBP plays of all types – mysteries among them. (She portrayed the evil, wheelchair-bound villainess in April’s production of Blackout.)
Also back is Todd Caster, the male lead in last season’s finale, the wonderfully excessive and delightfully acted drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
A Murder Is Announced gets off to a crackling start. The townsfolk all seem to notice an announcement in the local newspaper saying: “A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks, at 6:30 p.m.”
The notice surprises everyone, but particularly Letitia Blacklock (Sherman), owner of Little Paddocks. However, she takes it in stride and prepares for the arrival of guests that evening. The villagers are intrigued by the notice, and several show up with definite interest in what most perceive as a prank.
As the clock strikes 6:30 p.m., the lights go out and a door swings open, revealing a tall man holding a flashlight beaming a blinding light.
The man demands they “Stick ’em up!” Most of the guests do, believing it’s part of a game. That notion is dashed when shots are fired into the room. The door slams shut, and panic reigns. The fuses are blown, the gunman has been shot dead and Miss Blacklock’s ear is bleeding from a bullet that grazed her earlobe.
Police arrive; specifically, Inspector Craddock (Caster). The gunman is identified as Rudi Scherz (Jyair Clark), a foreigner employed as a receptionist at a local hotel. They note he had asked Letitia for money a few days earlier. Craddock and Marple agree to work together to solve the crime.
The talented ensemble adds color and life to the collection of characters that populates this play. They take the audience on a joy ride through the annals of Letitia’s ancestry, looking for the person or persons with the appropriate connection to the money. There are lots of twists and turns en route to a squeeze play ending that brings the killer forward.
DBP Executive Director Kevin Barrett says he wanted to spring the troupe’s usual once-a-season mystery on the audience early. A survey, he said, indicated thrillers are their favorite genres.
The cast includes some excellent players. Diane Gilch, as the ineffable Miss Marple, gives the well-worn role a refreshing combination of strength, smarts and grace.
Sherman, a consummate stage professional, is cool, calm and sophisticated at Letitia. It’s a nice counterpoint to the rest of the characters in her country house – permanent house guests, nosy neighbors and, of course, Miss Marple.
The large cast features Renee Martins as Dora “Bunny” Bunner, one of the few village residents with nothing to hide. Another standout performance comes from Amy Marie Smith as Mitzi, the cantankerous maid.
Kyle Glenum gives a strong performance as Letitia’s spoiled relative, Patrick Simmons, who, along with Alexa Hinton as Julia Simmons, might himself be after Letitia’s fortune.
Rainey Haynes charms as Mrs. Swettenham, the busybody neighbor who invites herself over when “murder is announced,” thinking a party game is about to start. She’s accompanied by her cynical son, Edmund, portrayed by Rory Mackay in a sharp, smart role.
A Murder Is Announced can be seen tonight, Saturday and Sunday at the Delray Beach Playhouse, 950 NW 9th St. (Lake Shore Drive), Delray Beach. Tickets may be purchased online at www.delraybeachplayhouse.org or by calling 561-272-1281.