Farmer Squire Calloway (Mike McRee) and preacher Horace Mallory (Robert G. Hess) discover the mysterious Ophelia Entry (Maggie Robbins) in Pioneer Playhouse's production of Elizabeth Orndorff's Death by Darkness. Below: John Nyrere Frazier. Photos courtesy of Pioneer Playhouse.
DANVILLE -- Last summer, Danville’s Elizabeth Orndorff found herself toe-to-toe with whodunit giants such as Ed McBain and Columbo creator William Link.
And she killed ‘em -- literarily.
Orndorff walked away from the first annual International Mystery Writer’s Festival in Owensboro not only with the prize for best new playwright, but also best new play for her Death by Darkness.
So what was the mysterious rock of Kryptonite in Orndorff’s slingshot to help her knock off the Goliaths?
Was it a shocker worthy of Shyamalan?
Was it a web woven like Christie?
Back home in Danville, the Pioneer Playhouse stepped up as the first Central Kentucky theater to let us see the play and unravel the mystery. The answer is none of the above.
There are mysteries in Death by Darkness, which runs through July 20, and even a genuine, “Whoa! Didn’t see that coming.” And Orndorff, writing her first mystery, deftly executed that puzzle-like structure most mysteries have, where everything falls together in the end.
But Death doesn’t succeed in keeping us guessing as much as it makes us think about ourselves and the forces that mold us like water molds a cave.
Kentucky’s own Mammoth Cave, it’s “Star Chamber” or gypsum crystals, specifically, is the setting for a journey in 1842.
“You don’t know yourself until you’ve been in the dark for a period of time.”
Next time we see Stephen, he’s leading a group of tourists into the cave, including a writer and his wife from England, a Harvard geology student and a local preacher and farmer. Or, that’s who they say they are. Over the next two hours, identities are revealed, lines are crossed, arguments ensue, a few other characters show up, and someone ends up dead.
“No use in asking God, because this here is my cave, and I’m the only one who knows the way out.”
Whodunit isn’t much of a mystery here. Whydunit is the bigger question among several that are raised, including ones about relationships and justice. In many ways, it’s more of a character study than a mystery.
Pioneer Playhouse gives the show a good ride, particularly by bringing in John Nyrere Frazier to reprise his Mystery Fest award-winning turn as Stephen. There are also numerous strong performances from the playhouse’s repertory ensemble. Director Lawrence Lesher gives the show a quick pace, never letting the action seem as stagnant as half-a-dozen people in a room in a cave could be.
Yes, tighter webs could have been woven, bigger surprises could have burst from the Mystery Fest stage last summer. But Pioneer Playhouse reveals that it’s unlikely any of the other plays in Owensboro were as satisfying as Death by Darkness.