By Kevin Coughlin
Truth is a hot topic in this age of “alternative facts.”
Which makes Ravenscroft, a murder mystery/comedy set in 1905, a remarkably timely production for the Bickford Theatre in Morris Township.
The plot hinges on the meticulous Inspector Ruffing, sent to a snowy English manor where the men of the house keep meeting unfortunate ends on the staircase. Ruffing’s mission is to get to the bottom of this…without landing there himself.
There is Mrs. Ravenscroft, a lusty young widow, and her daughter Gillian, a whirlwind of adolescent hormones and flights of fancy. Marcy, a pretty young governess from Vienna, draws immediate scrutiny from the Inspector. A terrified maid named Dolly and a stout cook, Mrs. French, round out the household.
All have their reasons for pushing staff member Patrick Roarke to his doom– and Mr. Ravenscroft before him. As the Inspector sifts the ladies’ conflicting stories, panning for nuggets of veracity, they probe his secrets as well, challenging his bedrock-belief in objective, verifiable reality.
Struggling to make sense of the world around him, the Inspector gradually realizes that the most elusive truth is the inner one, at our core. Solve that mystery, and everything else falls into place.
Written by Don Nigro and directed by Eric Hafen, Ravenscroft is billed as a cocktail of “Monty Python, Agatha Christie and Downton Abbey.”
Aside from the British setting and a few class references about the hired help, the Downton comparison is a stretch.
Agatha Christie is felt in the first act, which takes its time to lay the groundwork. Viewer patience is rewarded with a full-speed-ahead second act of Python-esque revelations, reversals and raucous one-liners that snow the Inspector under an avalanche of alternative facts.
Clark Carmichael, whose recent appearances include Jumpers on Broadway and Coriolanus at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, gives a sturdy performance as Inspector Ruffing. The Montclair resident reveals just enough glimmers of humanity to make his hard-boiled character sympathetic.
Molly Garner of Bloomfield (national tours of Billy Elliot, Mary Poppins) displays a nice comedic touch as Mrs. Ravenscroft. Some of the most difficult bits of dialogue — and biggest laugh lines– are delivered by Drew University sophomore Erin Farrah. Keep an eye on her in the future.
Farrah’s Drew classmate, Jessica Sroczynski of Bayonne, is tasked with the evening’s histrionics as Dolly — “dumb as a turnip,” according to Mrs. French, played by Gloria Lamoureux of Succasunna. Okay, maybe Lamoureux does channel a bit of Mrs. Patmore from Downton Abbey…
Katrina Klein (Marcy the governess), a graduate of the Mayo Performing Arts Center’s youth program, deftly parries the Inspector’s interrogations but proves no match for a Viennese accent.
As a whodunnit, Ravenscroft kept us guessing — rightly, and then, wrongly.
It provoked some thought, too, about the nature of “truth.” In Ravenscroft, as in modern times, facts are subject to interpretation. And authority figures try to have the last word.
Ravenscroft runs through Feb. 12, 2017, at the Morris Museum’s Bickford Theatre, 6 Normandy Heights Road. Tickets: $45 for the General Public; $40 for Seniors; $38 for Museum Members; and $20 for Students (18 & under or with valid college ID). Group rates are available. Call (973) 971-3706.