Backstage: St. Michael's Playhouse Produces Murder Mystery

07/07/11 2:50PM By Neal Charnoff
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St. Michael's Playhouse/Buff Lindau
William Connell and Kathryn Merry star in the St. Michael's Playhouse production "I'll Be Back Before Midnight."

(Host)  A lonely farmhouse.  Eccentric neighbors.  A perfectly timed thunderstorm.   These are all elements in the murder mystery, "I'll Be Back Before Midnight" by Canadian playwright Peter Colley.

VPR's Neal Charnoff takes us "Backstage" with the St. Michael's Playhouse production. 

(Charnoff)  "I'll Be Back Before Midnight" opens with a classic mystery setup.  A young wife, Jan, is recuperating from an emotional breakdown, and her husband Greg brings her to an old New England farmhouse where she can recover. 

In this scene, Greg tries to reassure Jan that everything will be all right. 

(Greg) "I've changed, you know.  And out here will all be different. We'll have time for each other."

(Jan) "I wish you'd told me, though."

(Greg) "Told you what?"

(Jan) "That you'd rented a place in the country."

(Greg) "But it makes so much sense.  I can take my sabbatical, and you can recover. And besides, I wanted it to be a surprise.

(Jan) "But there are no people around here."

(Greg) "But sure there are.  This isn't the wilderness you know. There's farms all around, and the village is only five miles away.  Look, its your first day out of the hospital, so naturally you're feeling a little tense."

(Charnoff)  Of course, no sooner do they arrive than strange things start to happen.  

(Jan) (Scream!) 

(Greg) "What's the matter?"

(Jan) "You nearly scared me to death."

(Greg) "I was just putting your luggage away.  There's a back stairway. 

(Jan) "Oh, I thought you'd... it's crazy. Look, it's the first time I've been left alone, that's all. I'll be all right.  

(Greg) "It's a natural reaction, Jan, and once we've settled in."

(Jan) "It's the isolation of this place.  I just need people around me now."

(Greg) "Well there's George across the way, he's the farmer I rented this place from. He's a real character, you'll love him.  And when sis' arrives you'll have someone to talk to.

(Jan) "What?"

(Greg) "I said when sis' arrives you'll..."

(Jan) "Oh, Greg, not Laura!"

(Neal)  Add a beautiful but manipulative sister, and a peculiar neighbor, and you've set the scene for a roller-coaster of suspense and laughter.

"I'll Be Back Before Midnight" has enjoyed worldwide success, confirming writer Peter Colley as Canada's most popular playwright.

Colley originally set out to write a spoof of the murder mystery genre, although even he came to realize the play turned out to be quite scary.

The St. Michael's Playhouse production is directed by Gregory Ramos of South Burlington. 

Ramos says he decided to make some subtle changes to the original script, which was written and set in the 1980s. 

He was uncomfortable with the portrayal of a victimized wife in a contemporary context, so he set this version in the 1950s.

Ramos says moving the action to the mid-20th century allows him to approach the play in a quintessential American film style, conjuring images of Grace Kelly, Doris Day, and other actresses who appeared in suspense thrillers of that period.   

(Ramos "It's really given us kind of a starting point to really celebrate the genre and allow the actors I think in a really fun and exciting way to explore that genre and these characters."

(Charnoff) Ramos says that a director's job is always to create a sense of trust with his collaborators.

But he feels a heightened sense of responsibility directing a murder mystery. 

(Ramos) "There's been a lot of attention to detail to make sure that when we get the play up, audiences are going to get the best roller-coaster ride possible, because that's really what these plays provide, you know a thriller is getting the audience to sit on the edge of their seat and ask the primary questions.  Who did it?  What's going to happen next?  Is she going to open the door?"  

(Charnoff) Ramos worked with his actors to guide them toward giving stylized performances to match the genre. 

Jan is played by Kathryn Merry. 

Merry says part of her preparation for the role included studying the acting style of 50's era actresses such as Grace Kelly.

(Merry) "We go for extreme naturalism now, a lot of the time, and in the 50's that just wasn't the style, but I really love what they were doing and some of the work is really compelling, and some of it is really over the top, and it's kind of delicious to watch."

(Charnoff) William Connell, who plays Greg, agrees that it's great fun to emulate the classic thriller style of acting.    

(Connell) "We even have written on the wall, "No Naturalism, Please", so as to remind ourselves that we're in a very heightened environment."

(Jan) "No! No Greg, stop them! Stop them!"

(Greg) "Wake up, Jan!"

(Jan) "No! No!"

(Greg) "You're dreaming, Jan, I'll put the light on!"

(Jan) "Oh God, it was terrible. I can't rest.  When I do manage to fall asleep I have terrible nightmares."

(Greg) "Take one of your pills."

(Jan) "No.  I don't want to go back to sleep."   

(Charnoff) The atmosphere in this production of "I'll Be Back Before Midnight" is heightened by an original score by Joel Abbott. 

A shadowy lighting and set design also help set the mood.

As for the theme of the play, director Gregory Ramos says that this type of murder mystery speaks to the audience's innate sense of reality.   

We see a central character who is being spooked into believing she might be insane.

But we know it's just a matter of time before the truth wins out. 

(Ramos) "For me the takeaway is for audiences to walk away and say, "I'm really going to trust my instincts".  I think we all have that inner barometer and it's really about understanding that there is something to be said for what our innate feelings are."

(Charnoff) But Ramos says the main goal of the thriller genre is to entertain. 

And he says that in the context of theater, murder is entertaining because of the terror it creates.   

(Ramos) "One of the things that theater does is allow us to explore the very basest fears and joys that we possess as human beings.  And I think we are provided in theater the latitude to go places where we would be really afraid to go in life."

(Charnoff) "I'll Be Back Before Midnight" runs at St. Michaels' Playhouse in Colchester through July 16th

 For VPR Backstage, I'm Neal Charnoff.

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