Old-fashioned murder

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First Posted: 6/13/2014

Someone has been murdered, the strangest of details are coming out about people who could have possibly done it, the mood is tense, the inspector is closing in on it – and suddenly it all stops and you are asked to determine who did the crime.

This is exactly what befalls those who dare become a part of the production during Actors Circle’s latest show, an original written by John McInerney, “Murder in the Manor House,” which opens this weekend.

McInerney wrote the show during a six-week period this winter, and what he drew inspiration from is entertainment familiar to many.

“I’m a big fan of Downton Abbey,” he said of the popular British period drama on television. “It’s really a soap opera, but it’s a very high-class soap opera. You get involved with both the noble family who own this house, this castle, and the servants who keep it running.”

McInerney’s story is one of the Merivale Estate in the summer of 1924; a lord, lady, son, and daughter are dealing with their changing living situation. Their lives are complicated due to a financial drain, forcing them to sell some of their land and to try to come up with a way to make a profit again and preserve the estate. Many other characters come into play, such as the dowager who is the lord’s mother, and a young man who is the daughter’s fiancé. A murder occurs right in the house, and that’s when things get interesting.

“As they investigate, surprising things emerge about all the characters, and there becomes quite a few suspects,” McInerney said.

The show goes on, but right before the murderer is revealed, it stops and the audience, who were given cards prior to entering the theater, is asked to write down who they believe is guilty. The names of those who guess correctly are entered into a drawing, and the winner receives tickets to an upcoming Actors Circle show.

“But even then,” McInerney said with an air of mystery, “even after the murderer is revealed, there’s another surprise.”

McInerney was excited to have the opportunity to helm one of the theater house’s original productions, though he did say having his work taken and worked on further by others was a bit daunting.

“You have to turn over your creation, which has grown in your head, as you jotted things down you imagined them, and that script becomes very specific. You turn it over to the cast and crew and they add their own creativity, which can be a little disturbing if you’re the author but, frequently, it’s better.”

He said he has a wonderful cast and crew to work with: David J. Spitzer plays Lord Philip Merivale; Leba Lanton as Lady Ellen Merivale; David J. Hunisch as Thomas Merivale; Mary M. Graff as Lady Marjorey Merivale; Patti Purcell as Lady Elizabeth Merivale; James Pennington as Paul Fitzgellen; Rory Giovannucci as Alfred Simmons; Janet Loewe as Abby Holsum; Linda Griffiths as Dorothy Carter; Raymond Hopkins as Patrick Walsh; Cathy Strauch as Samantha Peterson; and Marissa Gaglione as Lily Morgan.

Carol Arena is co-directing and, not only that, she is in charge of the costuming as well. She and her assistant Antanine Kane have been deconstructing and reconstructing garments to ensure the perfect pieces fit each actor – and also the scenery.

“If the set does not compliment the costumes, they can tangle with each other for attention,” Arena said. “My philosophy when it comes to costuming and scenery is that when the actor walks out in the appropriate costume on the appropriate set, they should be able to fully become the best character they can be, with help from that.”

The set is very simple and something Arena has never worked with – a split stage. The upper portion is where the family of the house interacts, and the lower one is where the servants reside. Arena calls the feel of the set a “black box look” with sparse furniture. It’s something she said is simplified, but to the period, and it will allow the costumes to stand out.

“The challenge, when you do a period piece, is to not make it look like a Halloween costume,” she said. She’s also working with two types of clothing for the period: the dowager, an older woman, will wear clothes that recall the styles of the early turn of the century, and towards the end there will be the appearance of some classic 1920s garb – think headband with a feather and a dress that shimmers – to accommodate the fashion accessories that became staples for the younger generation at the time.