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St. Louis by Richard Green

An Evening of Mysteries
First Run Theatre

An Evening of Mysteries
Joe O'Connor and Rachel Visocan
First Run Theatre closes its ninth season of nurturing unrecognized playwrights with a pair of 90-minute crime stories by Richard LaViolette. Divine's Grace captures an ethereal sense of the England of a hundred years ago, and boasts surprisingly fine performances. Next up, The Kerpash Affair is a crime story that takes the term "procedural" a little too seriously, with predictable plotting, as well as a tone that seems conflicted and artificial.

Less important than tone and mood (to me, at any rate), the audience may also find itself a step ahead of both mysteries now and then. It's a tricky genre, since most of us have grown up on crime stories, listening for every clue. So it's a good thing the playwright has put strong characters forward to support the sometimes less-than-challenging plots and minimal action. Rachel Visocan is excellent as a woman in trouble in Divine's Grace, set in the English countryside in 1907. And director Jim Meady draws very fine performances from each of the actors in this staid Edwardian story of implied scandal and off-stage revenge, glinting with a love story that's never far from view.

In The Kerpash Affair, director Judy E. Yordon leads her actors down a primrose path of extremely forced comedy, in a story of a Bernie Madoff-type swindler and what happens after he's kidnapped. Some very good actors pitch in bravely, showing the utmost faith in this unbelievably lightweight tale of ruthless greed and abduction: Gerry and Kay Love play the scheming investment guru and his wife; Don McClendon is a federal agent; Mary Robert is a detective; and Connie Mulch is a surprisingly well-grounded mistress. Each brings plenty of thoughtful presence and style to a show that, like the infamous Mr. Madoff himself, will never pay them back.

The kidnapper played by Christopher Purcell is somehow the only charming character in the bunch, perhaps because he's hooded and covered in a jumpsuit and gloves, so his own over-the-top contribution seems more in-line with his cartoonish appearance. He almost seems to be wearing a space-suit, to avoid contamination by this misguided production, where a stark kidnapping is contrasted against the comical approach of his loved ones and a gaggle of (mostly) ridiculous detectives who might be more at home on the set of the old TV show "Barney Miller." The tortured comedy includes lots of references to "dames," though it's set in the present day (when "suspects" or even "bitches" might be a more credible term). And with Kerpash bound and gagged under a naked lightbulb up-center, it's a little hard to take the comic absurdity of his wife slithering romantically around an extremely jocular detective (Kirk Sayles), after she strolls into a police station with a full martini glass.

Author LaViolette does far better with the period piece Divine's Grace, partly because the tone is entirely consistent with the story, and because director Jim Meady and his cast were able to develop a natural approach to an antique style. The author spends a great deal of time in the development of his characters and, because the actors are so good, we don't really mind, most of the time: there's the tremulous woman in trouble; her overbearing, titled mother; and a retired jewel thief, to name a few. The only actor who comes out with any kind of stain, in terms of what he's called to do on stage, is Joe O'Connor as a criminal mastermind. He's a fine actor, but ends up at the fulcrum of dark events, in an era where (figurative) moustache-twirling was still in fashion. He bravely works to make the character plausible, but the length of his first scene really tests his endurance, and ours.

Several of the scenes in Divine's Grace need trimming or faster pacing, or both. After the end of one of these, we are told that our hero (the very natural and likable Austin Pierce) has been listening on the other side of a door the whole time. It seems like a good example of a scene that could easily have been started half-way through, between the outstanding Ms. Visocan and the brave actor, Mr. O'Connor, as the villain. The two lovers (Ms. Visocan and Mr. Pierce) might then back-fill the story through dialog, without prolonging Mr. O'Connor's lengthy exposure as a triumphantly wicked South African. Still, full points to the actor for his absolute conviction.

Gwynneth Rausch is also extremely fine as the quintessential noblewoman. The playwright and director and actress work so beautifully together that they can make her steely and unlikable at one moment, and then funny and kind-hearted the next, without any apparent inconsistency. As usual, I suppose, the lion's share of the credit should go to the actress (Ms. Rausch) for actually making it work. And David Hawley, as a retired jewel thief, is wonderfully understated, realistic and clever, in an utterly non-theatrical way. Between the jewel thief and the vicar (Mr. Pierce), playwright LaViolette has come up with a terrific crime-fighting duo that's intelligent, genteel, and keenly perceptive—and completely worthy of the manor-house mystery tradition.

Composer Mary Sutherland does a great job with original, suspenseful music throughout, and the sets are both serviceable and sensible. You really have to hand it to First Run for giving a fledgling playwright every possible advantage in the staging of his or her work. New scripts are accepted from January through November, vetted by a reading committee the following January, and up to six are selected to be read at a festival in March. The company's board of directors selects which plays will ultimately be produced, with shorter plays having a separate festival called "Spectrum."

An Evening of Mysteries continues through January 22, 2012, at the theater in De Smet Jesuit High School, accessible from the rear of the building. The venue is located on Ballas Road, between Ladue and Olive Street Roads, backing up against I-270. For more information visit them online at www.firstruntheatre.com. For more information on readings of new plays by volunteer actors, with feedback from them, any friends of the author, as well as fellow authors and regulars of the troupe, go to www.stlwritersgroup.com.

Divine's Grace Cast
Lady Mary DeBonnaire: Rachel Visocan
Rev. Dr. Robert H. Locksley: Austin Pierce
Mr. Reynald Greenleaf Littlejohn: David Hawley
Jane, Lady DeBonnaire: Gwynneth Rausch
Mr. Guy Lackland: Joe O'Connor

The Kerpash Affair Cast
Jerome Kerpash: Gerry Love
Kidnapper A: Christopher Purcell
Kidnapper B: Kevin Bristow
Lt. Alan Fitzsimmons: Kirk Sayles
Det. Margaret Blanchard: Mary Robert
Miriam Kerpash: Kay Love
Robert Cotter: Tom Moore
Special Agent Lewis: Don McClendon
Helen Redstone: Connie Mulch
Sean Fitzsimmons: Timothy Callahan

Crew
Directors: Jim Meady & Judy Yordon
Assistant Directors: Kurt Jarvis & Shahnaz Ahmed
Stage Manager: Rhonda Cropp
Stage Crew: Jan Carson, Craig Jones, David Hawley, Jim Robert, Tanner Douglas, Ian Cornelius
Set Designers: Brad Slavik & the Directors, Robert Beck
Set Dressing: Jim Meady, Jan Carson
Costumers: Russell J. Bettlach, Craig Jones
Properties: Jan Carson
Lighting Design/Effects/Operator: Erich Suellentrop
Sound Design: Brad Slavik
Composer: Mary Sutherland
Sound Board Operator: Ken Price
House Manager, Program & Ticket Design: Brad Slavik

Photo: BEI Photography


-- Richard T. Green

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