Story: In Divine’s Grace, a minister in the English village of Ashdown in 1907 is saddened when Lady Mary DeBonnaire, whose company he has kept for several months, tearfully turns down his marriage proposal. Her reasons are mysterious and secretive, but he honors her request to continue to see her. Her wealthy mother, Lady DeBonnaire, has hopes for the marriage and urges Rev. Locksley to find the source of her daughter’s unhappiness. Locksley enlists the aid of his assistant, Reynald Greenleaf Littlejohn, a reformed thief who may also have knowledge about the disappearance of Lady DeBonnaire’s valuable family diamond, stolen years ago and one she desperately wants her son to give to his fiancée once they marry.
The Kerpash Affair deals with a billionaire hedge-fund manager under indictment for securities fraud who is kidnapped shortly before his trial and held for ransom by an unknown duo. His ‘trophy’ wife, Miriam Kerpash, seems strangely unmoved by his disappearance, while his mistress Helen Redstone gives the police any clues she can in the hope of saving him. Intrepid police lieutenant Fitzsimmons and his trusty assistant detective Blanchard pursue the investigation even as Fitzsimmons locks horns with an FBI agent he has long despised.
Highlights: First Run Theatre was founded by the late Don Weiss in 2003 with the sole purpose of providing a vehicle for St. Louis area playwrights to have original, unpublished, previously unproduced works (other than readings) presented as full productions. To that end, an entertaining effort by playwright Richard LaViolette titled Death by Fiat was performed solidly during First Run’s 2008-09 season.
Other Info: LaViolette is back with two of his plays presently being performed under the umbrella titled, An Evening of Mysteries. The better of the two is the opening presentation, Divine’s Grace, which LaViolette points out in program notes is actually a two-act work whose first half can be performed independently. Jim Meady directs with keen attention to detail if also at a tortuously slow pace, one exacerbated by the slow motion of the tech crew between various scenes.
Still, there’s enough interest in the characters of this period piece to make one wonder how Divine’s Grace might work with both acts performed. As it is, Austin Pierce brings an earnest quality to Rev. Locksley, while David Hawley portrays Littlejohn as a dutiful servant whose colorful background plays an important part in the goings-on. Gwynneth Rausch adds class and character as the haughty Lady DeBonnaire, with Rachel Visocan and Joe O’Connor contributing in the smaller roles of Lady Mary and an unsavory opportunist named Guy Lackland.
Company president Brad Slavik and Meady designed the twin sets that serve as the minister’s rectory as well as Lackland’s library, with lighting furnished by Erich Suellentrop and props by Meady, Jan Carson and the cast. Russell Bettlach brings a nice touch to the period costumes and Mary Sutherland provides a pleasant original musical score.
The Kerpash Affair never really gets going, as LaViolette’s humor is mostly played far too broadly by many in the eager cast. There is good work by Kay Love, performing in her First Run debut and 100th theater production, as the flirtatious Miriam Kerpash, and it’s good to see her husband, Gerry Love, on stage again, bringing a roguish style to the unrepentant Jerome Kerpash.
Connie Mulch does well in a couple of short scenes as Kerpash’s worried lover. Others in the cast, including Kirk Sayles as Lt. Fitzsimmons, Mary Robert as Detective Blanchard, Don McClendon as FBI special agent Lewis, Tom Moore as attorney Robert Cotter, Timothy Callahan as Fitzsimmons’ son and Christopher Purcell and Kevin Bristow as the kidnappers, all could benefit from more instruction and guidance by director Judy Yordon, unless stilted slapstick and burlesque are the desired effects.
Craig Jones and the cast contribute the contemporary costumes, and the set designed by Slavik and Yordon works well enough for multiple scenes including the kidnappers’ lair in the back, Redstone’s apartment at stage right, Fitzsimmons’ cramped office at stage left and Kerpash’s office in the center. Sutherland’s music doesn’t work as well for this strained comedy as it does in the more refined Divine’s Grace, while Slavik provides the sound design.
First Run Theatre has a noble mission that sometimes finds clever little gems but often falls short on substance. But, as Paul Simon once sang, one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. Rating: A 2.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Venue: Hunter Theatre, DeSmet High School, 233 North New Ballas Road
Dates: January 20, 21, 22
Tickets: $12-$15; contact 352-5114 or firstruntheatre.com
Photos courtesy of BEI Photography