Witness for the Prosecution

Agatha Christie’s chilling whodunit “Witness for the Prosecution” dares you to guess the ending, and the odds are overwhelmingly against you. For the first-time viewer of the play, being performed through Monday at the SCERA Shell Outdoor Theatre, the excitement is in seeing the drama unfold in the courtroom, and then seeing how everything falls apart at the end.

Leonard Vole (played with convincing innocence and naivete by Joel Farnsworth) is a drifter, though he claims not to be, who is suspected of murdering a wealthy widow with whom he had recently become acquainted. The circumstantial evidence points to him, as does his being the beneficiary of her will; however, he insists he’s innocent and even has an alibi: He arrived home at 9:25 p.m., shortly before the murder occurred.

His wife, the exotic Romaine (Sarah Dawn Barley), vouches for that when discussing the case with Leonard’s lawyer, Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Dale Pomeroy). But later, on the witness stand, she turns against her husband and says he didn’t arrive home until 10:10 — and that when he did, he had blood on his jacket.

The genius of the play is in its believable but completely unexpected twists, leading to one last-minute event that is particularly shocking and very well played by the SCERA cast. (I knew it was coming and still jumped a little when I saw how it was done.) Though Leonard is likable, the idea that perhaps he is guilty is a strong one — but so is the possibility of his innocence. An embittered Irish housemaid (the delightfully charismatic Agnes Broberg) seems to have a grudge against him, which may taint her testimony — and why is Romaine acting so shifty in Wilfrid’s office in that first scene…?

The SCERA production, directed by Dave Hanson, seemed embarrassingly under-rehearsed on opening night. Nearly every cast member stumbled over his or her lines, some of them quite frequently and badly. It’s a dialogue-heavy play, and no doubt a killer to memorize; probably a few more times through it by now will have fixed that problem.

Another drawback, however, is the acting, which is generally too broad. So much attention is given to getting the lines out that there’s no time left for characterization. Never mind that only a few cast members attempt British accents, making those who don’t do them stick out like sore thumbs. We could forgive all things accent-related if only they were compensated for by some solid acting. But with only a few exceptions, the people in the play are caricatures who deliver very believable lines in a very unbelievable manner.

That B- grade was generous. Frankly, having just trashed the last show I saw ("I Came to Your Wedding"), I was hesitant to trash another one because of the crapstorm that would inevitably erupt from the people who don't like anyone trashing anything no matter how bad it is. I underestimated the audiences, though: NO ONE liked "Witness for the Prosecution," and I probably could have been harsher and not stirred up too much trouble.

(Mind you, it is not stirring up trouble that I was shying away from; it was stirring up trouble on two consecutive reviews. I shouldn't have let that be a factor, though.)

Apparently, there was casting problems with this show. Everyone in the valley likes to perform in musicals and comedies, not courtroom dramas. That's the reason for some of the poor casting, I guess, though not an excuse.