In the main room of a mansion on isolated Soldier Island, accessible only by boat, ten strangers gather together. All of them have been invited for various reasons by a host they have never met. Suddenly a recorded voice accuses each of them of past crimes and pronounces the sentence of death on all of them. One by one the guests begin to die and witnessing all of this from the fireplace mantle is a row of ten china soldiers, whose numbers diminish as the murders continue.
We have found ourselves firmly in Agatha Christie territory. The novel was published in Great Britain in 1939 under the original title “Ten Little Niggers” (I apologize for that offensive word. It was later published in paperback as “Ten Little Indians.”) and released in the United States with the title “And Then There Were None” which is now the official title of the work, has proven to be one of Ms. Christie’s most popular books and is considered the most popular mystery novel of all time. Adapted for the stage by the author in 1943, it has had various movie and television versions over the decades and had been copied and parodied by countless other authors and directors. As part of Allen’s Community Theatre’s 2018-2019 season entitled “A Season to Die For!”, director Jennifer Stephens Stubbs leads a talented cast through this dark tale of suspense and gives the audience a delightful edge-of-your seat experience. As with all murder mysteries, there is the joy of trying to figure out who the murderer is as the body count escalates. And everyone in the crowd keeps watching the line of china soldiers on the fireplace mantle, illustrating the children’s poem (“Ten little soldier boys went out to dine, one choked his little self and then there were nine…”), which is the basis for the killings, as they mysteriously and inevitably disappear. It makes for a fun night at the theatre.
Jennifer Stubbs has designed a very workable version of the main hall of the mysterious mansion. We are given a view to the balcony, showing the sky and nothing else. Black drapes on the sides of the stage lead to various other rooms in the house. The furniture is plush and comfortably worn. It is a very workable set and comfortably accommodates the large number of people on stage at various times. The fireplace created by Kasey Bush is in the upper right corner of the set but rapidly becomes the focus of attention both for its appearance and for the line of soldiers on the mantle who seemed to vanish as if by magic.
Lighting and sounds help to solidify the sense of mystery and foreboding. Lighting designer Martin Mussy effectively lights the main room and, when the generator goes out, gives us a stage lit by candlelight, punctuated by flashes of lightning. It was a very well-done effect. And the sound design by Robert Stubbs gives us ominous transition music between the scenes and the natural sounds of wind and storm and lightning cracks to emphasize the isolation of the characters.
Costumer Stacy Winsett has provided period appropriate (late 1930’s) apparel for the actors. Special mention must be made of the wardrobe for the character of Vera Claythorne. From a stunning green dinner dress to the sensible trousers and top near the end of the play, Vera was given a look of sophistication and glamor befitting a woman of that time.
As a director, there are few things as daunting as choreographing many people on stage. Jennifer Stephens Stubbs has done it with skill, creating very nice stage pictures along the way. She also assembled a fine group of actors to tell the story. As Vera Claythorne, Megan Tormey is the very model of the efficient secretary. Hired through an agency and never having met her employer, she greets each arriving guest with courtesy and a well-rehearsed apology from the absent hosts. As the time goes on and she must grapple with her past and with the terror that is unfolding around her, the veneer of calm begins to peel, and she begins to give into fear. Ms. Tormey does all of this with skill. One roots for her throughout the play.
Her romantic pursuer and ultimate protector is the stalwart soldier of fortune Philip Lombard, played with solid conviction by Kevin Moriarty. Afraid of nothing and apt to laugh in the face of danger, Mr. Moriarty’s character is the classic hero type. Ashamed of nothing in his past but confused by the hopelessness of the situation he is in; Lombard gamely fights to the end. And the audience loves the character that Mr. Moriarty has given us.
We are given a large cast of characters and each one is given an opportunity to come to terms with the sins hidden in their past. There is retired General Mackenzie, played by Kenneth Fulenwider with, at first appropriate bluster and then heart-touching bewilderment and sadness. Mr. Fulenwider’s scene where the General’s secret is revealed is a study on how to convey emotions. We have the haughty Anthony Marston, joyfully portrayed by Collin Miller. He shows us a man who is oblivious to any crime he may have committed in his past if there are fast cars to drive, women to chase and whiskey. Robyn Mead makes her character of Emily Brent a moralistic, bible-reading edifice. When faced with her crime, she defends her decision as the moral choice. And Ms. Mead makes you believe every word. Sir Lawrence Wargrave is a former judge and Eric Levy makes him a man who has always been certain of his decisions and refuses to admit he may have made a fatal error. Mr. Levy plays him with rock-hard conviction.
The nervous doctor who specializes in nervous disorders who is summoned to the mansion is Dr. Armstrong, played with convincing paranoia by Pælor Cuihn. Never overplaying, Mr. Cuihn gives us a man who is nervous about everything in the best of times and when confronted with terror clings to anyone who can give him a sense of security. It is fun to watch him. Chris Bertholet as William Blore is a man intent on hiding his real identity. Mr. Bertholet gives him a bulldog’s tenacity as he grapples with the mystery unfolding before him.
Rounding out the list of suspects is Deborah Little Key as Mrs. Rogers and Brian Hokanson as Rogers. They are the servants for this party, and they open the play by readying the house for the guests. They are believable in their parts and when they too become caught up in this horror, they react with genuine fear. And Frank Lewis does a sturdy job of playing Fred Narracot, the skipper who runs the boat to Soldier Island.
The original ending of the novel is bleak. In adapting the book for the stage, Agatha Christie was encouraged by her producers to give the play a happy ending. Allen’s Community Theatre give the audience the opportunity to choose which ending they want. In a unique way to raise funds, there are jars where the people can choose the upbeat ending or the original ending from the book. The one that collects the most money is the ending the cast will perform. It is a fun way to include playgoers.
So, spend some time on an isolated island with some strangers and try to figure out who the murderer is. It is time well spent. And it is comforting to know that when the play is finished, the people who were killed in front of us will change clothes, take off their makeup, drive home and sleep the sleep of the innocent until the next performance. I find that reassuring.