Pulp mystery conceals poignant family drama
Masked by a veneer of cheap British melodrama in the Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas (MILC) production of Canadian playwright, Bernard Slade’s, An Act of the Imagination, lies a sterling example of the British propensity for paradox and the sanctification of the mundane.
Arthur Putnam (Neil Rogers), one of the most popular mystery writers alive, does something quite out of the ordinary. He writes a love story. Beyond departing from his usual subject matter, the absentminded, distant novelist manages to create unprecedented, passionate characters and a vivid romance.
If Arthur’s writing seems almost like realty, his personal life has transformed into one of his mystery novels as a series of accidents leads him to believe that someone is trying to kill him. Unable to decide whether he is in danger or simply paranoid, Arthur confesses to his wife, Julia (Lucia A. Welch), that he fears he is falling into an imaginary world where he will become trapped and unable to live in reality.
The situation further deteriorates with the appearance of Brenda Simmons (Caitlin Mills Duree), who claims not only to be Arthur’s lover but precisely matches the description of the woman in his latest novel. When Brenda disappears the night after she confronts the author, both material and circumstantial evidence connect him to what police believe to be a homicide.
As pressure from his hidden enemy begins to rip Author’s life apart at the seams, he begins to look at his own failings as a husband and father and must come to grips with where his loyalties actually lie. Similar to much of the venerable tradition of British theater, adultery plays a prominent role, both as a plot device and as a point of discussion. Motifs including mercy, fidelity and creative imagination add nuance and depth to this family drama that could easily be written off as a second rate murder mystery.
When Arthur descends deeper into the nightmare that looks disturbingly like the inside of his brain, and the line between fiction and reality blurs, the motives of his secret tormenter slowly become crystal clear. Arthur’s childlike trust in loyalty and marriage’s sanctity are used against him, as the antagonist wields these principles, which the villain believes to be trite and unsophisticated, as terrifying weapons against the novelist.
What Arthur’s assailant does not count on, however, is that great detectives are as trite and simpleminded as the writers who create them, because they, too, believe in the absolute truth of guilt, innocence, good men and evil men. It is this simple faith that gives the private detective the ability to outwit his enemies, who are unable to contemplate scenarios beyond their own base desires, making them, in turn, vulnerable to the manipulations of the sleuth who entertains all possibilities and overlooks no solution, regardless of how laughable it may appear.
Slade scrutinizes even ostensibly innocent pursuits like writing fiction, when Arthur admits that everyone around him serves their purpose—Julia creates excellent plots, and his friend, Detective Sergeant Fred Burchitt (Joe Porter) is an excellent reference for police procedures. Arthur manipulates those he professes to love in a manner almost as calculated as that with which he himself is used.
These ambiguities leave the actors and director to answer the question: is the play about fidelity or murder? Although MILC refrains from really exploring some of the Slade’s trickier themes, the ensemble meticulously tells a clear story, transmitting all of the playwright’s words to the audience. Although this may be a little more emotionally bland than a riskier production, in the process of telling an enjoyable mystery story, the actors give the engaged audience member something else to think over.
The elusive nature of loyalty is a common thread across Slade’s work, from his Tony nominated play, Same Time Next Year, about two adulterous lovers who meet once a year for two decades, to Tribute, which centers around the relationship between an estranged father and son.
Although the performances remain fairly even across the cast, Rae Harvill is adorable as Arthur’s wide-eyed editor, Holly Adams. When she decides to put aside her red pen in order to help unravel the intrigue, she affects the transformation without losing her girlish charm. Although Roger’s level performance never reaches the highs and lows one would expect from a man under extreme duress, his didactic reveal is charged with emotional honesty.
Director Sue Birch creates strong acting lines and takes advantage of both key set pieces and negative space alike to give force to the dialog and highlight significant moments. For the majority of the performance, however, she keeps her deft stage direction to a limited section of the large, multi-tiered stage.
Simple yet descriptive costumes by Barbara Kirksey help tell the characters’ stories before they even begin delivering their lines. Duree’s flamboyant dress perhaps is the most striking example, shouting at the audience in anticipation of her attempt at blackmail. Charles Wallace’s polished set lends its own stiff, British upper lip to the proceedings, and Sam Nance’s light design makes the space shrink and expand depending on the intimacy required by each scene.
1 hr, 45 minutes with one, 15 minute intermission.