by Eddie Carmichael
“Christie’s novels have sold roughly 2 billion copies! I guess she was doing something right,” says actor Rick McDermott, who plays Lord Justice Wainwright in Judson Theatre Company’s production of Witness for the Prosecution, the spine-tingling whodunit Christie considered her theatrical masterpiece. Among her more than two dozen works for stage, Christie’s list includes The Mousetrap, the world’s longest-running play, And Then There Were None, a big hit for JTC in 2017.
“Sometimes people are startled to learn Agatha Christie remains the world’s most successful female playwright, but I always say, ‘of course she is!’” says JTC Artistic Director Daniel Haley. “She’s a whiz at everything a playwright needs to master: plotting, characterization, dialogue—and the secret ingredient that makes her plays timeless: the insight into human nature.”
Witness for the Prosecution premiered in London in 1953 and on Broadway the following year. Recently it has re-emerged in the cultural conversation, with a successful 2016 BBC remake starring Toby Jones and Kim Cattrall and the currently running site-specific London revival in an actual historic courtroom. Christie’s classic “wrong man” story tells the story of young Leonard Vole, who is facing murder charges in the death of a rich older woman, Emily French, whom he has befriended. But he couldn’t have killed her if his alibi, that he was home with his wife at the time of the murder, is true. Renowned barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts takes Vole’s case and tries to determine what really happened and who is telling the truth. Christie’s criminally delicious drama of death and deceit keeps the audience guessing till the shocking quadruple-twist ending.
Christie was 63 when she adapted her 1925 short story for the stage, and the play’s dramatis personae includes characters at all stages of life. “Judson Theatre Company has always celebrated the experienced actor,” says Executive Producer Morgan Sills. “We regularly tell stories where mature characters are at the center of the action: The Sunshine Boys, Tuesdays With Morrie, and On Golden Pond, to name just a few. A large portion of our audience is ‘Navigating Their Second 50’ and I think it’s inspiring—for them and for us all—to see someone like our Tony Award nominated star Alan Campbell in a tour-de-force role like Sir Wilfrid Robarts where he rarely leaves the stage.”
The 62-year-old star of Broadway’s Sunset Boulevard and TV’s Jake and the Fatman is a Christie fan. “I’ve always enjoyed a good mystery, a whodunit with twists. I love the use of the language. She weaves the story in such a literate way.” Campbell elaborates, “Also, Witness for the Prosecution in a legal sense, because it’s a courtroom piece. I was surprised to see how good it is as a guide to courtroom procedure: developing evidence, cross examining…it’s used in law schools, [for law students to] watch how Christie’s characters develop witnesses and allow them to reveal the information, and also her sense of humor and character. It’s easy for an audience to follow, even with the twists and turns.”
Other actors in the production share Campbell’s enthusiasm. Lisa Burton, who plays police surgeon Dr. Wyatt, says, “As a fan of mystery writing, I appreciate Agatha Christie’s ability to weave a complex tale that keeps me guessing. And her prolific works appeal to every age range.”
Of sustaining a career across the decades in what can often be a difficult business, Campbell opines, “Being versatile is really important; being willing to stretch and try new things. It’s so easy to say ‘I’ve had success in sitcoms, so that’s what I’m going to be.’ Because my career has been so varied and I’ve done so many different things, I never thought of pigeonholing myself. Sustaining a long career is: do the work, be prepared, be pleasant. You spent 5% of your time onstage and 95% [with the cast and crew] in an ensemble situation. It’s a huge collaboration, and if you don’t enjoy the process, you’re going to be miserable and make it miserable for everybody else.”
Acting continues to be an enjoyable challenge for Moore County actors Burton and McDermott as well. “Acting is much more cerebral as an adult. I love it and the challenges different roles present,” says Burton.
McDermott adds, “Acting as a young man was so often learn the lines, listen for your cue, and say your lines. Although the memorization of lines might not come as quickly today as back then, the understanding and subtexts seem to. Nowadays, using life experiences and listening are invaluable keys in the process of bringing my character to the stage.”
Onstage or off, the actors all say they look forward to what the future holds. Burton states,“Having spent 25 years raising 5 children, I am thrilled to be at a place in life where I can focus on some of my passions, chiefly acting. I am definitely physically active, and I look forward to traveling and becoming more involved in my community.”
McDermott echoes, “I’m well into my ‘second 50’ and my beautiful wife and I really enjoying spending time here in NC when not up north! I have been so very fortunate to work with so many wonderful and talented actors at Judson Theatre Company and my goal is to continue to work with JTC whenever possible.”
Campbell concludes, “I want to do good work, I want to challenge myself and enjoy the process. Life is a bell curve. There’ve been incredibly ambitious periods…and now my choices are quality of life choices: living in the moment, enjoying the work, appreciating the opportunity.”
This month, one thing all three actors are looking forward to is the audience’s reaction to Witness for the Prosecution. McDermott sums it up: “an Agatha Christie play makes for such satisfying work for an actor, but more importantly–it’s great entertainment for the audience.”
Catch Campbell, Burton, and McDermott in Judson Theatre Company’s production of Witness for the Prosecution at the newly renovated Owens Auditorium at BPAC (on the campus of Sandhills Community College) in Pinehurst, November 21-24. Tickets are available online at JudsonTheatre.com. Limited quantities of tickets are available to buy in person at local outlets. Discounts are available for groups, students, and military (see website for details).