Murder By Natural Causes
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle Street • Tickets: $10-$15
Big Dawg Productions’ “Murder by Natural Causes” dinner theatre last Friday was one of the most fun evenings I have had in years. Their home, Cape Fear Playhouse, has a very large front room, perfect for hosting dinner during the first Friday opening of each show. Their inaugural effort, with food served from New York Pasta House, dessert from Apple Annie’s and libations from Wilmington Wine (Big Dawg’s Castle Street neighbor), was a natural match. It requires a lot of manpower. The set up that Big Dawg has employed seems to be a recipe for success: Utilizing local businesses to provide a pre-show flight of fancy, so to speak, wherein date night becomes an all-in-one stop. The meal and the show both sold out. (Their success carried through the rest of the weekend, too, to sold-out crowds, even sans the dinner part.)
“Murder by Natural Causes” was tremendous fun. The action centers around an unhappily married couple, Arthur and Allison Sinclair (Ken Cressman and Tamica Katzmann). Arthur is a successful stage mentalist, literally making millions with appearances, tours and book sales. Allison is (surprise!) having an affair. She has recruited and seduced a struggling and not very talented young actor named Gil Weston (Brandon Leatherman) to “give the performance of his lifetime”—in other words to literally frighten Arthur (a recovering heart patient) to death.
Katzmann is strikingly, stunningly beautiful. Every time she smiles at one of the men onstage and asks for something—anything!—it is entirely easy to believe that they have fallen for her hook, line and sinker. They can’t possibly believe that she is truly evil to the core —completely without feeling or remorse. In reality, the painted-on exterior is beautiful; yet, she is terrible inside, manipulating and destroying lives and not caring where the shrapnel lands. Katzmann works her good looks and dazzling smile to perfection, flashing it liberally. The one surprise is that the women fell for it, too. Usually, it takes a very different kind of charisma for beautiful women to manipulate the rest of us normal-looking females, as we tend to react with resentment to their malapportioned gifts.
“Murder by Natural Causes” has been adapted from a 1979 teleplay, a la TV movie, which starred Hal Holbrook. Cressman plays the lead, and, in many ways, we see the same concentration in him that is the hallmark of Holbrook’s acting style. There are so many delightful nuances to Cressman’s work. He has learned to raise just his right eye brow, and it stays at different points of elevation throughout interactions with his wife in act one. In act two they drop with the veil. He is quiet, removed and always observing, creating a strong veneer of the detached otherworldliness that would be necessary to the image of a show-biz mentalist. When the façade dissipates in act two, though, it is wonderful to see the difference.
Alfred Hitchcock described suspense as letting an audience know a bomb was placed under a table and then seating the characters there for a normal chat. In this case there is a gun onstage. One character (Gil Weston) knows it is there and another (Arthur Sinclair) believes it is in a different room. When Weston comes back to kill Sinclair in act two, its presence and the audience’s foreknowledge creates a sizzling tension. Every time Leatherman moved close to the gun’s hiding place, I literally squirmed in my seat with anticipation.
The supporting cast had several shining spots, too, including Carol Pendergrast as Mrs. Carrington, a wealthy widow occupied with charity fundraisers and her dog, Toby. Elizabeth Woodside as Marta brings the sweet, good-hearted, dim maid to the Sinclairs. She makes us so grateful that she is off work for the night of the murder, because the audience could not bear for her to come back to this mess—it would only shatter her good opinion of the world!
Big Dawg is really a quiet success story of theatre in this town. They don’t produce the splashy musicals of Opera House or Thalian Association, and they tend to steer clear of the edgy choices of City Stage and Guerilla Theatre. They have built a reputation for producing solid non-musical plays that are character- and plot-driven, with minimal sets and costume changes. From Neil Simon to the New Play Festival, they remind us time and time again that the relationship between playwright and performer is only valid if the audience is fully engaged as well. The nearly sell-out season this year is testimony to the strength of the decisions and the success of the work. They have just announced their next season, which includes “The Lion in Winter” and a stage adaptation of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” May it surpass this year and sell out every show.