When I was a kid, my mom used to set up the ironing board in front of the TV on Saturday afternoons to watch reruns of “Perry Mason,” America’s most famous defense attorney. I got hooked on courtroom dramas.
The Good Company Players production of “Witness for the Prosecution” brings back pleasant memories.
The twists and turns of Agatha Christie’s whodunit, set in 1954 London, unfold at a proficient, brisk pace, even though the play itself, with three acts and two intermissions, can feel a bit old-fashioned and lumbering. In the hands of director Karan Johnson, it percolates into a tense production that will have you guessing until the very end.
My only major concern after watching an opening-weekend performance is that the big “reveal” in the final scene could have even more dramatic impact.
As the play opens, we get the basic outlines of the case: Leonard Vole, an unemployed and amiable man, is the prime suspect in a case involving the murder of an “elderly” woman (she’s 56!) named Emily French. Leonard (played by the deft and able Alex Vaux), several decades younger, has recently become good friends with the widow after doing a good deed for her during a chance encounter on the street, and he’s been visiting her regularly.
Her murder looks as if it occurred during an attempted robbery, complete with shattered window, but nothing was taken. Police are suspicious it might have been an inside job.
The British court system works a little differently than the American version, and part of the fun of “Witness” is immersion in a world of barristers, solicitors and courtroom wigs. The tough but genial Sir Wilfrid Robarts (a well-cast Noel Adams) takes Vole’s case, assisted by Mr. Mayhew (a smooth Chase Stubblefield).
Once we reach the courtroom – a sturdy affair, thanks to David Pierce’s stately set – Sir Wilfrid squares off against the relentless Mr. Meyers (a standout David Otero), barrister for the prosecution, as Leonard’s fate hangs in the balance.
The large cast includes some strong performances, including Suzanne Grazyna as a slightly zany secretary, Sandra Montelongo as the murdered woman’s housekeeper, and Erica Riggs as Leonard’s enigmatic wife.
When the movie version of “Witness for the Prosecution” came out in 1957, ushers asked audience members not to give too much away. I’ll follow that advice.
My quibble is with how the pivotal scene in which the revelation of the killer is made came across the night I saw the show. It felt rushed and perfunctory. This was a time when Johnson needed to draw out the tension and gobsmack the audience with a well-timed shock, then let the moment resonate.
I liken it to playing a piece of music. Sometimes you have to work the tempo to maximum effect, and this one could have used a bit more of a conductor’s flourish.
Still, even with the wobbly ending, I enjoyed my time in the courtroom. I certainly didn’t guess the killer before it was revealed, though I’ve never had much aptitude in that area. (Even “Perry Mason” used to confound me, though in my defense, I was probably only about 8 years old at the time.) For fans of the genre, “Witness” will keep the whodunit meters quivering.
Witness for the Prosecution
- Runs 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 9.
- 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave.
- www.gcplayers.com, 559-266-0660.
- $20, $17 students and seniors.