MURDER BY NATURAL CAUSES theatre review

by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
Orange Park Community Theatre (OPCT) opened its 4th show of the 2010-2011 season, with the North Florida premier of an entertaining mystery entitled Murder by Natural Causes.
This whodunnit was originally a 1979 TV movie of the same name starring Hal Holbrook, Richard Anderson and Katherine Ross. Playwright Tim Kelly created the stage play and kept it to the standards of TV movies of that time. That is, no profanity and bloodless violence in dispatching the victims.
The time is now, in Beverly Hills, California, in the study of the home of a wealthy, world famous mentalist. Arthur Sinclair is played to perfection by Michael Smithgall who can be found more often in comic roles on stage, but is a very convincing psychic.
The attractive Allison appears to be a devoted wife, but is secretly very greedy and wants to do him in so she can control the lucrative royalties from his books and videos. Carla Lahey is excellent as the scheming female, who convinces her lover, a young handsome unemployed actor, Gil Weston to pull off the murder, which is plotted to appear as a death by natural causes. Jack Bisson is very good as Gil in his debut at OPTC in a role far more demanding that his two previous stage appearances in this area, in Dearly Beloved at Theatre Jacksonville and Sabrina Fair at Players by the Sea.
Ah, but there are several other characters that are integral to the plot. Local stage veteran Steve McMahon plays George Brubaker, the mentalist’s somewhat subdued and seemingly easygoing attorney. Making her North Florida stage debut is Cynthia Baker, as Jessica Prescott, the agent setting up a big money book deal for Arthur. Alyssa Vandervort, who has worked backstage for many productions, appears on stage for the first time as the family maid Marta, who provides adds a lot of humor to the play with her fascination with Mr. Sinclair’s ability to read her mind.
One of Jacksonville’s best comic character actors, Fred Gatlin, makes an appearance as Eddie Oakman, Arthur Sinclair’s personal private investigator who ferrets out facts about people that Sinclair wants to impress with his psychic abilities. (Gads, could Arthur possibly be a fake?)
Rounding out the cast is Shelley Hayes as Mrs. Carrington, a rich society matron who is so impressed by Sinclair that she want to sponsor a nationwide tour displaying his talents. She in fact refers to him as “Arthur Sinclair, the man from whom you cannot keep a secret!!” Ms. Hayes is a veteran of many OPTC productions and is very believable in this role.
This play has a lot of twists and turns that happen rather quickly, so it always keeps you guessing. They play was excellently cast and directed by the husband and wife team of Sue and John Pope. Sara Green is the production Stage Manager. Sue Pope and the cast were responsible for the costumes which, along with everyday wear, included a long patterned dress with a pink stole for a pop of color for Mrs. Carrington and tastefully sleek loungewear for Allison.
David Wells and Mrs. Pope designed the uncluttered set, with blue walls hung with interesting art work, a comfortable patterned sofa, wooden furnishings, and French doors that gave us a glimpse of a terrace with brick walls with trailing ivy.
Murder by Natural Causes makes for an interesting and captivating evening of theatre and a nice change of pace in the local theatre scene. Our favorite quote from the play, uttered by the famous mentalist to his maid was “An open mind does not mean a hole in the head.”
The theatre is located at 2900 Moody Road in Orange Park; the play will be on stage through April 16. Call 276-2599 or visit www.opct.org for additional information and reservations.

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