Audiences Are Absorbed in Granite’s Hollow

It’s a bright Sunday afternoon when I arrive at The Granite Theatre, unclouded blue sky and soft September breeze giving no indication of the delicious darkness that waits within the playhouse. 

On stage, a lavish scene is set: artwork scattered on the walls, deep red drapes wrapping two sets of French doors, a sparkling bar cart in one corner and a proper English sofa in another. I have walked into the unmistakably old-school world of Agatha Christie’s The Hollow. The legendary novelist is known for her murder mysteries, a niche genre that, while slightly outdated, provides a particular fun, unique in its ability to draw the audience in. This audience-to-actor connection, of course, is only effective through detailed character development, which The Granite manages to do quite skillfully. The audience is introduced to each character carefully, revealing the many layers to their relationships slowly as the plot unfolds. With magnificent differentiation, the cast carves each of these characters so that the audience can clearly understand the backstory of the play.

The Hollow follows a well-to-do family with a complicated past, as the collection of cousins gather outside London in the country home of the elderly Sir and Lady Angkatell. The audience sees the entire weekend from the perspective of the intimate sitting room, as the family’s intricate relationships are revealed and the storyline thickens. There’s Henrietta Angkatell, the boisterous sculptor; Edward Angkatell, the reserved cousin; Midge Harvey, the young and beautiful dress shop worker; and of course, John and Gerda Cristow, the womanizing doctor and his anxiety-ridden wife. When John Cristow’s old love, movie star Veronica Craye, drops by the house, the precarious family sphere is thrown off balance, igniting a series of excitingly threatening events. Gudgeon and Doris, the butler and housemaid, dapple in and out of the scene, offering the crucial inside information only available to those who often go unseen. Unrequited love, secret affairs and long-since-abandoned romances surface in the Angkatell home, driving the characters into some tense situations that beg to be dispelled. When Sir Angkatell offers to give his houseguests a little lesson in target shooting, the action truly escalates and the family quickly begins to unravel.

The heart of the play belongs to Molly Marks’ Lady Angkatell, the spacey hostess who provides much needed comedic relief to an otherwise heavy story. Marks breathes life into the play with her expressive face and endearing cadence, making Lady Angkatell one of the only truly likable characters throughout — an impressive feat. While the other characters are certainly well played, it is Lady Angkatell who wins over the audience with her quirks and humanity, reminding us that sometimes the kookiest among us are the only ones worth listening to. Marks somehow gives both lightness and complexity to the role, making every scene featuring Lady Angkatell another audience favorite.

Michael Thurber and Michelle Mania, playing the “outsiders” John and Gerda Cristow, also give standout performances. In Mania’s first entrance as Gerda, I was immediately uncomfortable, feeding off of her character’s awkward, twitchy personality. It was never overplayed, but noticeably characterized — the perfect balance for a stylized play like The Hollow. During intermission, I noticed how much I disliked John Cristow, a real testament to Thurber’s talent. His disdainful body language as well as tone of voice lent themselves very well to the creation of this unpleasant character. An honest portrayal of an unlikable character can be a challenge, but these two prove just how well it can be done.

Despite some over-the-top antics — to be expected from a murder mystery, I suppose — the play is altogether absorbing and suspenseful. Tension builds as distant gunshots fire and two characters converse casually in the sitting room. The audience is waiting for a murder, and director John Cillino has done an excellent job of keeping us in anticipation, creating an atmosphere of expectancy as the story plays out. Watching The Hollow is a bit like indulging in a live soap opera with confusing family dynamics and convoluted plot twists serving up a hefty helping of decadent drama, plus a thunderous final scene that will leave you feeling sufficiently rattled. There is certainly a surprise around every corner!

I applaud this group of local actors for their commitment to bringing a classic mystery to life on stage. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to dive into an Agatha Christie novel, or to see a game of Clue come to life, The Hollow has you covered.  

Renaissance City Theatre Inc. at The Granite Theatre presents Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, through Sept 29, 1 Granite St, Westerly. For tickets and more information, visit granitetheatre.com or call 401-596-2341.

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