Christie Mystery Weaves Tangled Web

It would be difficult to name another 20th century author with as much still currently-active output as the late Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller Christie.

Of her 66 novels and 14 short stories, 12 became plays and many more found extended life on movie and/or television screens. One of the very few which reversed that path (play to novel) is “Spider’s Web,” which opened Friday evening on the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium of South Bend Civic Theatre.

Focusing on none of Christie’s most famous sleuths — Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence — it also was unique in that it was written specifically at the request of Margaret Lockwood, a popular British film star of the 1940s-50s, who tired of playing “heavy” roles and requested a lighter character of the prolific Mrs. Christie.

Spider's Web   South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThe result was Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, given a spirited portrayal here by Eva Cavadini. Clarissa is the second wife diplomat Henry (Jeff Starkey) and stepmother to his teenage daughter Pippa (Liz Carrier). On hand for the weekend in their rented country estate are three guests: Sir Rowland Delahaye (Roy Bronkema) and Hugh Birch (Gary Oesch), both older men in the midst of a contest featuring three types of port, and Jeremy Warrender (Zach Gassman), a younger man breathless from trying to break an existing record of running to the lodge gates and back three times. The contests have been set up by Clarissa to fill the time originally scheduled for a now-rained-out golf match.

And that’s only the first 10 minutes.

A change of plans means Henry must hold a secret meeting at the manor house, no small task given the company at hand. Also popping in — and out — are Mildred Peake (Mary Ann Moran), a jovial senior citizen with a cottage on the estate who serves as gardener; Elgin (Douglas Streich), the very proper butler; and Oliver Costello (a properly smarmy Reg Wagle), current boyfriend of Henry’s ex-wife, whose less-than-honorable intentions are quickly — and permanently — cut short.

Spider's Web  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreEnter a bumbling policeman, Inspector Lord (Travis Mayer), and his sidekick, Constable Jones (Patrick Trimboli whose Chaplin-esque skip is more bewildering than funny), add a hidden recess used in past centuries as a hiding place for priests and an alternate egress from the manor and, as a non-Christie character would declare, “The game’s afoot.”

As the long finger of the law points from one suspect to another, hostess Clarissa, whose favorite game is “supposing,” weaves convoluted alibis for each one. No surprise that these fail to put anyone in the clear and, indeed, prove much more confusing both to characters and audience.

Because it was written specifically for one actress may be the reason that this is the weakest in Dame Agatha’s list of mysteries. There is little suspense and the final exposure of the killer and motivation seems merely a solution for the sake of a solution rather than a surprising revelation.

No doubt aim at breaking up the rambling blocks of dialogue which are Christie’s trademark, director Jewel Abram-Copenhaver has underscored the most obvious with passages of familiar classical music as if to say “Don’t take this too seriously.”

It is a wise direction and one which the company — as well as the “cast” of the pre-show scenario (check period set pieces and “actors” throughout the lobbies) — takes under advisement. All deliver very credible performances, especially Cavadini and Bronkema, with Streich proving again that he can “butle” with the very best and Moran offering a giddy take on the obligatory nattering senior.

The all-encompassing set design by David Chudzynski is well-executed and affords the actors almost too much playing room. Somehow, mysteries seem to play better when the surroundings are a bit more claustrophobic.

“SPIDER’S WEB” plays tonight through Sunday and Oct. 30 through Nov. 3 in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium in the theater at 401 N. Main Street. For performance times and reservations, call 234-1112 or visit

'Addams Family' To Visit Kalamazoo

“They’re creepy and they’re kooky,

            Mysterious and spooky,

They’re altogether ooky,

            The Addams Family.

Their house is a museum

            When people come to see-um,

They really are a scre-um

            The Addams Family.

   (neat, sweet, petite)

So get a witch’s shawl on,

            A broomstick you can crawl on

We’re going to make a call on

            The Addams Family!”

The familiar theme for the TV version of Charles Addams’ famous cartoons in The New Yorker magazine is one song you won’t hear in composer Andrew Lippa’s score for the touring production set to play Tuesday and Wednesday evening in Miller Auditorium at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich.

All the Addamses — Gomez, Morticia, Wednesday, Pugsley, Grandma, Uncle Fester and even Lurch — will be ready to greet visitors at 7:30 pm. Also invited for dinner are Wednesday’s boyfriend Lucas Beinenke and his parents, Mal and Alice.

Word is this will be a ”spooktacular” meal. It seems everyone has something to hide and more than a few skeletons in their closets.

Book for this new Addams Family adventure is by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice who also are responsible for “Jersey Boys.”

Tickets range from $35 to $58. For reservations, call (269) 387-2300 or visit

Chekov Classic Spans Centuries

Russian playwright/author Anton Chekov described his last play, “The Cherry Orchard,” as a comedy. The company that premiered this work in January 1904, director Constantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre, played it as a somber tragedy.

The adaptation by British playwright Tom Stoppard which opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Warner Studio Theatre offers a rather bland blending of both genres.

First impression is that the design team for this production headed by Jacee Rohlck, set; David Chudzynski, lighting; Matt Davidson, sound; Teri Szynski, props; and Donald Eugene Willman, costumes, is at the top of their respective games.

With a minimum of “bustle,” thanks to stage manager Michelle Miller and her swiftly silent crew, the space turns from the nursery in an ancestral Russian estate, to a location somewhere on the grounds, to the main ballroom and back to the nursery. The only constant is the painted silhouettes of the family’s famous cherry orchard, which is both visible and the topic of almost every conversation.

Naturally, the production designs as well as the performances by the talented cast all evolve under the watchful eye of director Deb Swerman. It is to the credit of the SBCT ensemble that they have done a solid job in presenting a classic only infrequently found in the lineup of amateur theaters.

Since Stanislavski is the father of Method Acting, it is no surprise that, barring a brief outline for each character, the interpretations are up to the actors with, of course, the guidance of the director. Although the setting is turn-of-the-20th-century Russia, it could easily be turn-of-the-21st-century America.

Melissa Manier is Ranevskaya, widowed owner of the estate still grieving the death of her five-year-old son. After a disastrous five-year love affair in Paris, she is being brought home by her daughter Anya (Olivia Becht), Anya’s governess Charlotta (Andrea Creasbaum) and Yasha (Phil Kwiecinski), a servant, to face the auction of the family estate and the probable destruction of its famous cherry orchard.

The Cherry Orchard  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreWaiting to greet her are her adopted daughter Varya (McKensey Hedberg), her brother Gaev (Matthew Bell), her maid Dunyasha (Lisa Blodgett), the estate manager Yepikhodov (Aaron Denlinger), a fellow landowner Pishchik (Douglas Streich), merchant Lopakhin (BJ Simpson) and butler Firs (Bill Frascella). Each has his/her own reasons for wanting (or not wanting) the orchard to go.

Lopakhin offers a practical solution to save the estate but not the orchard which he, Trump-like, proposes to divide into small parcels to be sold to city dwellers for summer homes. He is continually amazed that he now is wealthy and in control while his parents and grandparents were serfs of the family.

Also in the mix is Trofimov (Steven Cole), a student and the girls’ former tutor, in love with Anya and representative of the pre-revolution thinking of the servant class. “To Live in the present,” he declares, “You have to be rid of the past.”

The Cherry Orchard South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreRanevskaya still refuses to sell although the impending auction is inevitable. Instead she waits for a miracle to save them, including marrying Varya to Lopakhin, an arrangement the girl finds agreeable and he never mentions.

The outcome is inevitable.

Manier is the heroine you want to shake into reality, literally floating blindly through a sea of memories. She recalls the way things were, while the way things are becomes the harsh present.

Bell is the uncle obsessed with billiards even as the axes are being sharpened. His attempts to lighten the atmosphere with humor fall flat and he also is unable to accept a solid solution.

The rest of the ensemble (including Jared Roy Windhauser who appears in several small roles) delivers well-formed characters, all of whom are caught up in the web of inertia that surrounds the family. There are well-delivered, brief moments of comedy but I would have to agree with Stanislavski. There is nothing really funny about an entire system falling for lack of interest.

“THE CHERRY ORCHARD” is presented at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Warner Studio Theatre at 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For reservations, call 234-1112 or visit