Gonna Take a Miracle

With Actors' Playhouse's move from Kendall to the Gables, Arisco has promised to expand on what he readily admits has been the company's formula programming (musicals, thrillers, comedies, and classics). Indeed, in order to "truly become one of the country's great regional theatres" -- an intention he states in the Man of La Mancha program -- he must make good on his promises to include the staging of dramas by less-than-conventional playwrights and a play-reading series that develops new work.

In her remarks before Man of La Mancha, Coral Gables Vice Mayor Dorothy Thomson hailed the Miracle's reopening as a "historic evening." Across town, celebrating 40 years of theater history, Coconut Grove Playhouse began its season with Ladies in Retirement. Although overly long and hopelessly dated, this 1939 British thriller offers richly satisfying performances by five-time Tony Award-winner Julie Harris and a superb supporting cast.

Devised as a murder mystery, Ladies draws its premise from an actual nineteenth-century French homicide case, although playwrights Edward Percy and Reginald Denham recast the story in a classic mystery setting -- a country house outside an English village. Ellen Creed (Harris) serves as part-time servant, part-time companion to the house's owner, Leonora Fiske (Carole Cook), retired from her career as a chorus girl yet still supported by several gentleman friends. Leonora welcomes Ellen's sisters Louisa (Eileen Brennan) and Emily (Laura Esterman) into her home for a visit, until they overstay their welcome by several months. When Ellen learns that Leonora wants to send her sisters packing, she hatches a scheme that will ensure their permanent residence in her employer's home.

Ladies features a murder as well as numerous thriller conventions, from hidden staircases to bricked-up walls. Unfortunately the play lacks a bona fide mystery. We know who-done-it by the end of act one, and we know who will discover who-done-it very soon after act two begins; this does not bode well for the suspense factor, a crucial murder-mystery element conspicuously absent here. Finally, although the play's authors strive to engage the characters in the sort of mind games that help to shape a gripping mystery, they haven't created complex or perverse enough personalities to pull it off.

Given such a leaden script, the fact that director Charles Nelson Reilly coaxes intricate performances from his actors seems amazing. At first an unassuming caretaker, Harris's Ellen ever so slowly reveals her tyrannical side, then cracks under the pressure of her need for control. In a riveting showdown, Ellen and Leonora trade venomous barbs. And even though Harris and Cook barely move their bodies an inch, the exchange is one of the most dynamic I've seen on-stage.

A face-off between Ellen and her nephew Albert (Christian Jules Le Blanc) proves almost as compelling, with Harris bringing a ferocious and desperate concentration to the paring of an apple during the scene. Eileen Brennan offers a witty, offbeat performance as the loopy, chatterbox Louisa. As the equally nutty Emily, Laura Esterman alternates between pessimism and childlike sullenness, attempting to calm her character's anxieties through obsessive behavior such as shredding pieces of bread. Le Blanc brings a mischievous energy to his role as the profligate Albert; the character's scenes with Lucy the maid (played with aplomb by Alison Crowley) lend the evening a playful sexiness.

James Noone captures the mood of a country cottage in his two-level set filled with bric-a-brac, while Kirk Bookman convincingly moves us through the days and the seasons with his lighting design. Noel Taylor's costumes convey each character's personality, via the prim buttoned-up garb worn by Ellen and Leonora's screaming-green hostess gown and Emily's slapped-together ensembles.

The thriller has come a long way since the staid Thirties, with contemporary tastes sharpened by the mental gymnastics of Anthony Shaffer's 1970 Sleuth and the unsentimental realism of television's Prime Suspect. While first-class acting, direction, and design lend this production of Ladies in Retirement a certain panache, a snooze of a script will leave sophisticated audiences stifling yawns.

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