Lingering Mystery

Live Theatre Workshop presents an entertaining whodunit with surprisingly compelling characters

A body lies just within the gates of an estate owned by a rather reclusive and no-longer-wealthy woman and her brooding son.

Was the victim--the household maid--killed by the mother, who feared that the maid's sexual allure would threaten the son's impending marriage into a wealthy family? Was she killed by the son, a dark and perhaps unstable fellow who may have been having an affair with her? Or was she murdered by the manipulative and coarse chauffeur? Or by one of any number of other people within or outside the mansion?

This is the stuff of classic murder mysteries, and specifically, it's the situation in George Batson's Design for Murder, a 1930s whodunit in the style of Agatha Christie, but with better fleshed-out characters.

Oddly, now that I've seen Live Theatre Workshop's production of the play, I know the identity of the murderer, but I honestly can't remember the true motive for the killing. After setting up so many possibilities, Batson glosses over the true reason for the maid's demise. Or was I just not paying attention when that little detail was revealed? This is not necessarily a bad thing, because for a change, LTW has mounted a murder mystery in which the characters and their interactions are perhaps more interesting than the crime(s).

As crisply directed by Doug Mitchell (despite a rather slow start, the fault of the playwright), the production features Kristi Loera playing Celia, the mother, with steadiness but not undue steeliness. She's no dragon lady, but she does possess that brusque determination that could allow an otherwise reasonable person, under duress, to consider homicide a viable option. The son, David, is played by Christopher Johnson, whose specialty these days is troubled and potentially dangerous young men. Johnson's David is nicely ambiguous; he seems liable to snap, yet he retains the sincerity and good manners that make one wonder if he is truly capable of such a foul deed.

Perhaps the most likely suspect is the chauffeur, Moreno, played by Eric Schumacher as a sort of Humphrey Bogart (the play is set in the 1930s) with nothing but a thin layer of sleaze where the rough honor ought to be. Another member of the staff, one Mrs. Hamilton (Rachel Gardner), may or may not know more than she lets on. And exactly how is one to explain the presence of the dead maid's immediate replacement, the beautiful young Nora (Michele Loera), who is precisely the opposite of what Celia requested from the agency?

Into this household comes poking and prodding a police detective named Carlin, a persistent but sweet man who had a crush on Celia when they were kids, and he's never gotten over it. Carlin--wonderfully played by Dwayne Palmer--doesn't have a particularly high reputation in this Hudson Valley village, but he's one of those up-by-the-bootstraps lower-class fellows with a careful plan to rise in the community, and the proper handling of this case could be his next step up the ladder--and maybe into Celia's heart, if she turns out not to be the murderer.

The circle also includes two hangers-on, women of a certain age played remarkably well by Hilary Pursehouse and Dell Willmon. Pursehouse, in particular, is someone I wish had more stage time here; her character may be annoying, but Pursehouse also makes her endearing.

At Live Theatre Workshop, the discussion of a production's merits (or otherwise) can't usually go far beyond the cast, director and script, for--aside from costuming, which is almost always apt--this storefront theater is too tiny to allow much inventiveness in set design or lighting. Indeed, with Design for Murder played in the round, the scenic elements are reduced to a few pieces of furniture and some props. But this time, I do have to question the lighting design, for which no one is credited in the program. It's quite odd, illuminating the furniture just fine but failing to cast much light on standing actors from the chest up. Perhaps the crew was trying to avoid shining up-angled lights into the faces of patrons, but the result is a poor compromise.

Otherwise, this is an entertaining production of material that may not be especially demanding on the audience, but at least it doesn't insult one's intelligence.

Now, if only I could remember the true reason that poor maid was murdered ...

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