Regional Reviews: Phoenix
In Verdict, we clearly know who the murderer is, since the homicide happens right in front of us, so the focus shifts instead to show the impact the murder has on those close to the victim, who suffer from the effect of the death as well as the consequences of their actions. Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre's production of this psychological drama features astute direction and a fine cast led by Peter Cunniff, who delivers a superb portrayal in his first lead role in a straight play after appearing in dozens of musicals in town.
Anya, the wife of the wise and brilliant professor Karl Hendryk, suffers from a progressive disease that she's been battling for five years. A decision that Karl made in the past forced the Hendryks to flee their homeland and move to England where Karl teaches at a university and also offers private lessons to students. Anya's cousin Lisa, who also fled with Anya and Karl, attends to Anya's needs while Anya is fearful that she is too much of a burden on her husband and that he will leave her or have an affair with one of his students. Helen Rollander, the rich, calculating young woman who is a prospective student of Karl's and the kind of girl who won't take no for an answer, is in love with Karl and believes that he loves her as well, but it seems that Lisa might also have feelings for the professor. Christie introduces interesting characters as well as plenty of intrigue and once the murder takes place she also ponders many questions concerning morals, justice and whether or not lies and deceit can sometimes be more important than the truth.
Director Virginia Olivieri steers clear of melodrama and ensures her cast deliver rich, refined and realistic portrayals. Peter Cunniff is excellent as Karl, an idealistic, principled, compassionate, and well-meaning professor. Karl is faced with several dilemmas throughout the show and Cunniff's line delivery, facial expressions, and body language expertly combine to show the weight and pain those issues and questions have on Karl. Carrie Ellen Jones is very good as Lisa, the woman who has sacrificed her chances of a career, love and happiness to attend to her cousin and to be in the presence of a man she loves but will most likely never have. Cunniff and Jones instill a deep sense of longing, regret and beauty in the several scenes they have together.
In smaller roles, J. Kevin Tallent does wonderful work as Anya's doctor who is also Karl's friend and confidant, while Bella Tindall essays just the right tones as the cunning seductress Helen. As Helen's father and the suspicious detective, Charles Sowder is quite engaging and direct. Jackson Ramler, CJ Boston, and Olivieri are also all quite good as the Hendryks' maid, a student, and Anya, respectively.
Olivieri stages the production to make good use of the entire stage space and doesn't limit the important action to center stage. There are several moments where the dialogue and plot could steer into comedy or melodrama, but Olivieri wisely stops that from ever happening with a cast who create real characters that you can both identify with and understand. The set design by Olivieri, Lindsey Ihrig, and Mark Baris is smart, intimate and perfect, while Mickey Courtney's costume designs perfectly fit the characters and the period.
As interesting as this play is and as well cast and directed as this production is, there are, however, two slight quibbles I have, one with the play and the other with this production. It takes a while for Christie to introduce all of the characters and the possible motives and have the murder take place. There is a lot of narrative in the first act that doesn't quite serve the plot, and the comical character of Mrs. Roper and Lester, a student of Karl's, are in several scenes but, with the exception of one key moment, their characters almost always seem quite unnecessary and somewhat intrusive to the story. Also, while Tallent, Boston, and Cunniff use accents, or hints of accents, the rest of the cast speak in American English which is a bit of a distraction for a play that is set in England and where the characters are all English or refugees from a foreign country.
Verdict was Agatha Christie's last play, written in 1958, so it is understandable why she departed from her usual devices and signature whodunit approach. While it takes a short while for all of the characters to be introduced and for the plot to kick in and the tensions to mount, this is still an appealing, captivating and entertaining play. DST's production has an almost perfect cast, sharp and smart direction, and beautiful creative elements that combine to make a psychologically engaging drama that is both thoughtful and thought provoking.
Verdict, through March 4th, 2018, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre, Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale AZ. For more information and tickets, call 480-483-1664 or visit http://desertstages.org.
Director: Virginia Olivieri