Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Mysterious Disappearance
Theatre Artists Studio
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's reviews of Hello, Dolly! and Our Dear Dead Drug Lord


Pamela Fields
Photo by Bill Phillips
Most Agatha Christie fans know about the 11 days in 1926 when the famous mystery writer disappeared. While the specific events of Christie's disappearance were never known and they aren't the plot of Kirt Shineman's drama The Mysterious Disappearance, they do come into play in this well-crafted work that Theatre Artists Studio is presenting in a tightly directed and well-cast world premiere production featuring a superb performance by Pamela Fields as Christie.

The play is set in December 1975, just a month before Christie's death. With her autobiography due on January 1, the 83-year-old is reviewing the events in her past and recording them into a dictaphone. However, Christie struggles sometimes to find the words she wants to say and forgets or confuses details of events in her past. She also finds herself having conversations with people who aren't really there.

With a rash of nursing home suicides in the news, Agatha ponders what it would be like to actually commit a murder. Sure, she's written dozens of books and plays on the subject, but what would it feel like to actually kill someone? The fact that Nancy Neale, the woman who had an affair with Christie's husband Archibald and was possibly the reason for the 1926 disappearance, is in a nearby nursing home gives Christie the idea for the perfect victim. Settling an old score with the woman who destroyed her first marriage gives her a motive and staging it as a suicide would provide a perfect cover-up. But can the best-selling fiction writer of all time actually go through with it?

That's the premise Shineman has crafted, but it's the payoff that elevates this drama into one that's incredibly memorable, and the payoff has nothing to do with murder or mystery but instead focuses on the impact of aging and memory loss. While Christie was never formally diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, some studies have found evidence that she most likely did suffer from it. One of her last books, "Elephants Can Remember,"  even had a central character who was a female novelist who struggled with memory loss.

Shineman has clearly done his research into Christie's life as he weaves together facts about the famous writer and her novels, details about her family and the people closest to her, her disappearance in 1926, and the information that she most likely did suffer from Alzheimer's disease into a beautiful play. His dialogue is sharp, witty, and moving in parts, the characters are three dimensional and fleshed out, and his plotting works well to keep the audience guessing with twists and revelations that register. Also, Shineman's use of overlapping dialogue and conversations that include characters from different time periods works exceptionally well to portray Christie's fractured mind. I don't know if Shineman meant this, but I took the title in a completely different way after seeing the show—that it referred to Christie's mind mysteriously disappearing.

Director Janis Webb does a wonderful job navigating through Shineman's richly layered script to ensure it flows smoothly and that her cast all deliver rich portrayals. Webb stages the action very well on Douglas Clarke's gorgeous set design that depicts a study and living room in Christie's Greenway House. For a play that shifts between the past and the present, Webb's transitions between Christie's conversations with people in the different time periods are impressive, with help from Stacey Walston's poignant and shifting lighting and Adam Barrett's rich sound design. The costumes by Dolores D'Amore Goldsmith and Marilyn Linde are character and period appropriate, and Micha Espinosa's dialect coaching ensures authentic accents from each member of the cast.

Pamela Fields is delivering an exceptional performance as Agatha Christie. She is commanding in the role. With a mischievous glint in her eye, Fields' discussion about murder is intriguing, yet when we see Agatha struggle with words or forget events in the past, Fields' pained facial expressions and vocal inflections make Agatha a woman the audience cares for. It's a realistic and moving performance. Anyone who has had a family member who dealt with memory loss will know that Fields' portrayal is truthful.

Anne Sanford perfectly and realistically walks a fine line between warmth and aggravation as Agatha's daughter Rosalind, who has become the protective caretaker of her mother. KatiBelle Collins is very good as Mary, the woman we first believe is a friend or employee of Agatha's but later appears to have a much closer relationship with Christie. With slight shifts in accent and body language, and a quick change of costume, Trevor Penzone does a wonderful job portraying three very different men in the play: Tony, the accident prone but completely charming husband of Rosalind; Agatha's first husband Archie; and her testy publisher William Collins.

The Mysterious Disappearance has rich characters and a fine-tuned plot. In Theatre Artists Studio's production it is a tightly woven mystery well worth untangling. Kirt Shineman has created a truly excellent play that weaves together facts about Agatha Christie's life and career into a poignant study of the impact of aging.

The Mysterious Disappearance runs through November 21, 2021, at Theatre Artists Studio, 4848 East Cactus Road, Scottsdale AZ. For tickets and information visit www.TheStudioPHX.org or call 602.765.0120

Director: Janis Webb
Set Design: Douglas Clarke
Lighting Design: Stacey Walston
Sound Design/Composer: Adam Barrett
Costume Design: Dolores D'Amore Goldsmith, Marilyn Linde
Dialect Coach: Micha Espinosa
Stage Manager: Jean-Paoul Clemente

Cast:
Agatha Christie: Pamela Fields
Rosalind Hicks: Anne Sanford
Archie Christie, Tony Hicks, William “Billy” Collins: Trevor Penzone
Mary W.: KatiBelle Collins
Officer Harry Maynard: Randy Messersmith


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