Of course, April wouldn’t be complete without my annual visit to Candlelight Theatre. This local play company that performs inside the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site is a real gem. Resident playwright James Trofatter, along with Donna Wing (the creative director of the troupe), wrote three more engaging murder vignettes for this spring production. Trofatter and Wing shared in the directing responsibilities too.
Candlelight Theatre usually performs either a single play that takes place throughout the house or three shorter plays performed in different rooms of the house. In either case, the audience rotates through the house to see the different scenes or plays. Murder in Triplicate was the latter case: three plays performed in various rooms (the dining room, the master bedroom, and the back parlor).
I started out in the dining room with the performance of The Photograph Album. I recognized John West, Heather Wing, and James Trofatter immediately. The story, set in 1927, was engaging. A sister and brother were involved in a yearly ritual: looking through a family photo album in hopes of uncovering some long buried secret that would explain why their parents died in a murder-suicide. Twists and turns and unnatural manipulations of a photo revealed unknown family secrets.
Next, my group was led up the front stairs to the master bedroom, where Benjamin Harrison died in 1901. As we waited for the bell to toll, to signal the three plays to begin (the plays all start and end at roughly the same time…there must be an art to writing and performing plays of similar lengths), I felt my ears prick up in canine-like curiosity.
One of the actresses was sitting in a chair covered with a crazy quilt—once again showing how the troupe makes good use of their Victorian surrounding. (Crazy quilts were a brief fad of upper class wealthy women in the late 1800s—and this play was set in 1898.) Then I noticed that the bedspread on the Harrison bed was a crazy quilt. I did not remember seeing that before.
I asked our room hostess about it; the one on the chair was a prop but the one on the bed was original. As we filed out of the room, I peered at the quilt but not long enough to gain any satisfaction. I noticed signatures in the scraps of clothes used to make the quilt and a fan shape—a nod to the Orientalism of the time. The hostess later explained that the Site rotates the spreads on the bed. (So maybe I didn’t notice it before because it wasn’t there…or it was before I knew about crazy quilts.)
In this second play, The Companion, I recognized Sue Beecher, always a delight to see perform. I did not recognize Tim Long or Laura Kuhn from previous performances, but all were excellent. As usual, things in the play weren’t always what they seem. Sue played a grouchy invalid wife, Tim her loving and devoted husband, and Laura her nurse accused of murdering a previous patient.
During intermission, we were shepherded down to the basement for a biobreak. The basement is lined with photos, which to my amazement seemed to be different than earlier visits. Photos ranged from those of Harrison’s grandfather (William Henry), Benjamin Harrison himself with other generals in the Civil War, himself as a staunch upright patriarch, and one of Lincoln as a young attorney and counselor at law (as written on the photograph).
The third play, Betsy, took place in the back parlor. I immediately recognized Ellis Hall, Donna Wing, and Ken Eder. Often a ham on rye, this time Ken played a maniacal lawyer. Set in 1925, this play centered on a pair of newlyweds who married after a brief romance. The wife slowly learns from the lawyer the twisted family circumstances that she married into. Again, nothing is quite as it seems.
When Candlelight Theatre productions are three separate plays rather than one long one, the cast gathers in the front hallway to greet the audience as they leave. First up was James Trofatter whom I thanked for all of the plays that he has written and I have enjoyed. He seemed a bit taken aback (which made me wonder how many people are regular attendees—his reaction suggested that I might be an odd duck).
As I worked my way down the line of actors, the tables turned. Donna Wing expressed that she was happy to see me, that she recognized me from previous productions. It was my turn to be a bit taken aback. Of course, in the setting of a historical home where the actors perform a mere inches from the audience (and on occasion include the audience), it shouldn’t be surprising that the audience registers with the actors. Her noticing my attendance at production after production caught me a bit off guard but added to the delight of the evening.
Murder in Triplicate runs for another weekend. But if you cannot make it, any of their productions would be fantastic to see. (Be sure to stop by the house for a tour too.) Candlelight Theatre used to perform just spring and fall productions, but in recent years expanded to include more productions. Next up is in July—The Trial of Nancy Clem—a previous production perhaps (Cold Blooded) but this time being performed at the nearby beautifully restored Indiana Landmarks Center.