REVIEW: Agatha Christie’s “Spider’s Web” at the Theater Barn

by Gail M. Burns

Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976)  was a fascinating woman in all regards (only the Bible has outsold her collected works), and her work is as much fun today as it was in the mid-20th century when she wrote it.

Spider’s Web (1954) has a murder and a mystery, but it is primarily a character-based play commissioned by screen actress Margaret Lockwood, well-known for her villainess roles, who wanted to make her West End theatrical debut in a light part in a “comedy thriller” by Christie.  Lockwood’s request came in 1953, the year after The Hollow and The Mousetrap (yes, it is STILL running!) opened in London, and Christie wrote the play during the period of the final rehearsals for her next hit play, Witness for the Prosecution. She named the central character to be played by Lockwood Clarissa, after her mother (Agatha Christie was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller).

That the resulting work is not one of Christie’s best plays is understandable. She was distracted by ongoing rehearsals, she was required to create a comic heroine for Lockwood, and Lockwood had further stipulated that she write roles for Wilfred Hyde-White, with whom she wanted to work, and her 14-year-old daughter r, Julia, neither of whom ever played the roles that were written for them.

At the Theater Barn director Allen Phelps has assembled an uneven cast – the best of whom are among our best regional actors – who make this production a pleasant evening of summer stock fun.

Kate Berg plays the Lockwood role of Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, a young woman recently married who takes her new role as step-mother to her husband’s teenager daughter very seriously. Berg makes a good show of her role. She is on stage for most of the play and needs to remember what Clarissa knows, or believes she knows, when and how she should react it to. She is well-paired with Phil Rice the Hyde-White role of her guardian Sir Rowland “Rolly” Delahayne, who is determined to protect his young ward no matter what.

In order to protect the person she believes is the murderer, Clarissa, who has a vivid imagination, begins spinning a spider’s web of lies. They are so convincing that Police Inspector Lord (Toby Wherry) won’t believe her when she tries to tell what she believes to be the truth. Clarissa gets herself in quite a pickle until the murderer finally reveals her/his identity and then the doors always fly open and salvation arrives, just as it inevitably did for Jessica Fletcher seconds before she was stabbed, strangled, shot, fed to sharks, or pushed down an elevator shaft on Murder, She Wrote. I like a good “damsel in distress” rescue, don’t you?

Katelyn Widmer, granddaughter of Theater Barn founders Joan and Abe Phelps, acquits herself well as young Pippa Hailsham-Brown, Clarissa’s step-daughter. At the performance I attended a tremendous downpour drowned out the early scenes of the play and Widmer was unable to rise above the din as the more experienced performers did. But once the noise abated she did a fine job of showing real fear when Pippa’s evil step-father, Oliver Costello (Andrew Pace), enters the scene.

Clarissa’s husband, Henry, who is some kind of high mucky-muck in the British Foreign Service, does not appear in this production, his scene having been excised. It is a very small role and I suppose there is a savings having to pay one less actor, but this is a murder mystery and each character, each scene, builds the plot. Remove even the tiniest piece and the whole becomes that much more baffling.

The last time the Barn mounted Spider’s Web in 2010 John Trainor played Rolly, and he has played a long line of inspectors in the Barn’s annual Christie outings. Here he has fun as the dithering Hugo Birch, the local JP (justice of the peace, an elected position in Britain). Newcomer Gianmarco Colucci is uneven as Jeremy Warrender, becoming such a sandwich-eating cypher in the central scenes that I almost forgot his role early on.

Brian E. Plouffe plays Elgin, the butler, the role he also played in the 2010 production. There is quite a bit of humor in Spider’s Web, but Plouffe and Brette Morningstar, as Mrs. Mildred Peake, the gardener who “comes with the house,” seem to be playing a much broader style of comedy than the genteel drawing room variety into which Christie fits. Morningstar’s attempt at an accent – Irish? Scottish? – is distracting, although she strikes some good comedy moments early on. And boy, can she scream!

Along with Morningstar’s inscrutable squawk, there are a cacophony of other attempts at British accents on display, some of which are sustained better than others. The need for accents is the major stumbling block for all American productions of Christie’s work.

Abe Phelps has designed and built another wonderful realistic set for this show, nicely decorated in dark forest green and well lit by Gabe Karr. The mechanics of the hidden passageway are delightful. Jade Campbell has designed a beautiful dress for Berg, and assembled the appropriate British country tweedy look for the rest of the company.

There are people who just love a good mystery, and even in her lesser works Dame Agatha can be counted on for that.  The Barn routinely stages a whodunit at this point in the season, and mystery buffs throughout the region look forward to it.  Spider’s Web is neither Christie’s strongest work or the Barn’s, but it provides a fun evening of mental stimulation in an air-conditioned space, which is always a good deal!

Spider’s Web by Agatha Christie, directed by Allen Phelps, runs through July 6-23, 2017, at the Theater Barn, 654 Route 20 in New Lebanon, NY.  Set design by Abe Phelps; costume design by Jade Campbell; lighting design by Gabe Karr; stage management Chelsey Moore. CAST: Phil Rice as Sir Rowland Delehaye, John Trainor as Hugo Birch, Gianmarco Colucci as Jeremy Warrender, Kate Berg as Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, Katelyn Widmer as Pippa Hailsham-Brown, Brette Morningstar as Mrs. Mildred Peake, Brian Plouffe as Elgin, Andrew Pace as Oliver Costello, Toby Wherry as Inspector Lord, and Paul Araiza as Constable Jones.

The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up (any murder mystery might be too scary for little ones). Call (518) 794-8989 to reserve seats. Ticket sales are by cash or personal checks only (sorry, no credit cards.) The box office is open daily from 10 am-9 pm.

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