- OnStage Connecticut Critic
Community Theaters often cart out old war horses like Agatha Christie’s "Witness for the Prosecution" for two reasons: 1) there is an inherent familiarity that audiences are drawn to and 2) they do big business. There is nothing wrong with this practice. Unfortunately, this practice also brings with it a huge hurdle to overcome: we’ve seen the play too many times. Can they do justice to the piece? Can they bring something fresh to it? Is it still relevant?
In the case of Westport Community Theatre’s production, which ended its run this weekend, the answer to all three questions is no.
The play itself – one that Agatha Christie deemed her best work - is wordy and long (almost three hours - with TWO intermissions). At the time it was written – 1953 – indeed it was heralded as “a great success” and even won two Tony Awards.
"Witness" is a murder trial concerning one Leonard Vole (played by Travis Branch as a wholly naïve defendant), who is accused of the murder of Emily French, a woman whose life he once saved, and from whom he now stands to inherit a sizable fortune. A fortune he claims he did not know about.
A sign of the times: Agatha Christie refers to the 56-year-old Emily French as ‘elderly.’
Vole shows up one afternoon at the offices of Sir Wilfrid Roberts (the solid and stolid Barry Alan Hatrick), who immediately signs on to exonerate him, and we are off to the trial.
One by one witnesses are called, secrets revealed, red herrings thrown out, motives are suspect and conclusions are drawn. Act Three brings the big twist, which is a great revelation, but not handled as well as it should have been. It seemed a bit awkward here; almost comical.
The rest of the cast featured some stalwarts of Fairfield County community theater: Geoffrey Gilbert, Larry Greeley, Cindy Hartog, John Pyron, Kate Telfer, David Pirrie, Jeff Pliskin and David Victor. A solid cast by any measure. However, not everyone was on their game or used to their best advantage.
This brings us to another problem that plagues community theaters: accents. The play takes place in London, so most characters are British. Another character is Scottish, one is German. The accents in the show run the gamut from non-existent to trying too hard. It is difficult to say which option is worse. Most actors, though, got close enough.
Director Tom Rushen keeps things going at a steady pace, which becomes a bit monotonous. Since melodrama doesn’t play as well in this day and age, the tendency would be to downplay those elements but that ultimately is a disservice to this production, rendering it less than compelling. As played here the stakes are not high enough. Nothing seemed of vital importance to anyone – not even the defendant.
The revolving set, designed by Kevin Pelkey, was a rather impressive one that was ultimately undone by the painting of it and the set dressing, which didn’t live up to his design.
While there are pleasures to be had, and certainly the audience we were with seemed to enjoy it, Westport Community Theatre’s production of Agatha Christie’s "Witness for the Prosecution" ultimately ends up a mistrial.
Michael Josephs is a life-long fan of Community Theater and can be reached at MichaelJosephs@optimum.net.